Maximum Risk

on September 13, 1996 by Susan Lambert
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   Jean-Claude Van Damme is an interesting character. Stuck in movieworld somewhere between Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger, he hasn't been able to approach the success of either--though he is, in a traditional sense, a much better actor. Of course, it may just be he's the only contemporary action hero we've got who doesn't look unbelievably bizarre playing a love scene. And while Schwarzenegger and Seagal (more precisely, Seagal's handlers) have been carefully manipulating their roles and movie choices to appeal to wider and wider audiences and reinvent a snuggly, cute, All-American version of themselves, Van Damme has learned to play to his strengths while remaining true to his "Kickboxer" origins.
   As his debut directorial effort, "The Quest," clearly showed this past spring, Van Damme has an honest fascination and appreciation for the martial arts. He knew of and was influenced by Hong Kong action movies before the rest of Hollywood caught onto them. So it's fitting that he is the first stop for Hong Kong filmmakers crossing over to an American market. First was John Woo's frustratingly bad "Hard Target"; now, with "Maximum Risk" (aka "Bloodstone" and "The Exchange"), Ringo Lam ("City on Fire") makes his first American movie, and this time it's a far more successful pairing. Lam doesn't seem as shackled by Van Damme as Woo clearly did. In fact, if anybody's holding back this time, it's Lam.
   Van Damme plays a French cop, Alain Moreau, who discovers he has a long-lost twin brother--but only when the brother is found murdered. Moreau tracks his brother's life back to New York and uncovers a connection between the Russian Mafia and the FBI. Along the way, he teams up with his brother's girlfriend, Alex Minetti, played by the strikingly underused Natasha Henstridge (who had such a delicious debut in "Species"). She has so little to do in this movie that it's a wonder she shares top billing and bothers to promote it. The plot isn't half bad until you try to break it down, and Lam knows how to keep the pace cranked up so you won't notice the movie ultimately doesn't amount to much. Though punctuated by awkwardly dramatic, over-the-top moments (e.g., Moreau catches his reflection in the cracked mirror he is using to pummel a mobster), the film carries no emotional weight. Still, Lam brings a welcome kinetic energy to the chase scenes, and his action has that fast and furious quality unique to Hong Kong films. Unfortunately, what have become staples of Van Damme films--the famous splits, the spinning kicks and his celebrated naked buttocks--are missing or go by too quickly to enjoy. Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Natasha Henstridge. Directed by Ringo Lam. Written by Larry Ferguson. Produced by Moshe Diamant. A Columbia release. Action/thriller. Rated R for strong violence, and for some sexuality and language. Running time: 102 min. Opened wide Friday Sept. 13
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