The Muscles from Brussels is back with his leanest and meanest action movie yet, under the highly stylized direction of Philippe Martinez. Wake of Death is a huge shot in the arm for Jean-Claude Van Damme who has been struggling for years to break out of a B-movie rut. Martinez shoots the film like a gritty ’70s crime thriller and directs Van Damme like he’s an “actor” and not an action figure. The result is a modern crime movie with guts and great acting that relies not on dialogue, but emotion, tone and uncompromising violence to carry a scene. It’s a film that understandably went direct-to-video given Van Damme’s track record, but really is deserving of theatrical release for it’s easily one of the best action movies of 2004.
Van Damme plays Ben Archer, a tough-as-nails nightclub bouncer for a French mobster who quits to spend more time with his family. His wife is Cynthia (Lisa King), a social worker for the INS who one day brings home Kim, a 12-year old Chinese girl. She’s an illegal immigrant on the run from her father, a triad boss named Sun Quan (Simon Yam) who murdered the girl’s mother with his trademark switchblade. Sun arrives in Malibu to find his daughter and kill anyone who gets in his way. Any hope of leaving his violent past behind is shattered when Ben discovers his wife’s body and his young son missing, along with Kim. With his mob friends backing him up, Ben takes the fight to the triad in order to protect his son, save the girl and get revenge for his wife’s murder.
For starters, the casting on this film is excellent. There are some great actors with just the right looks and mannerisms for their parts. There is Simon Yam, a solid Hong Kong actor who has been making recent inroads to Hollywood by way of this film and the truly terrible Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life while maintaining a respectable career at home in films like PTU and Breaking News. He says very little in the film, but his piercing gaze does more than enough talking. It’s nice to see that Martinez didn’t turn his fight against Van Damme into a drawn out brawl as one might expect. Yam maintains his proper place behind the scenes for the most part, as befitting someone used to having others do the dirty work for them. Hollywood stunt actor Philip Tan has one of his biggest roles as Yam’s right-hand man with a taste for fighting with various cutlery. The girl is ably played by Valerie Tian and her scenes opposite Van Damme are some of the best in the film.
Paired with Van Damme in his fight is Tony Schiena who has the looks, demeanor and physicality to be a great action star himself. Towards the end he shows off his fighting skills as he takes on some triad thugs. It gets bloody once he tangles with Tam and his small blades. Then there are these two great-looking old actors who play the mobsters and another who plays a crooked INS agent. They share the film’s most powerful scene, an interrogation using a drill. It will make you squirm. At that point you almost completely forget you’re watching a “Van Damme movie.” Maybe that’s because it’s not really a Van Damme movie in the traditional sense. It has a style that’s totally different from his previous output.
Van Damme is maturing into a grizzled and expressive actor with greater range than one might expect and this film gives him an opportunity to move in a new direction and show that he is capable of more than just boneheaded action and one-liners. The best example could be his emotional breakdown over his wife’s death, but I would say it’s his interactions with the young girl. At one point he’s awkwardly sharing a chocolate mousse with her in silence and at another, verbally lashing out at her for being the instigator that leads to his wife’s death. He ably shows himself to be fallible, even while he’s capable of coolly exchanging two-fisted gunfire with murderous triad members.
Martinez takes the same great care he applies to dramatic scenes to the action. In keeping with the crime noir tone, it’s rugged and rambling in a way that feels like everyone is just reacting rather than going through a carefully rehearsed routine. This gives scenes where Van Damme battles triads in the street outside a restaurant or where he storms into a brothel with a shotgun real verve. There are also two excellent vehicular stunt scenes, one an indoor motorcycle chase and the other a nighttime car chase involving an oil tanker. A Van Damme movie wouldn’t be complete though without some martial arts and he keeps himself busy enough in this regard. The difference though is that it doesn’t dominate a scene or the movie. The moves are meant to kill or maim and not show off. Then again, some of Van Damme’s opponents still appear to be extremely talented screen fighters. Martinez uses a lot of editing for all of these scenes, but he’s consistent with the look and it comes off as just part of the stylized world he and his crew have created.
The generic title doesn’t say much for the film, but Wake of Death should really be an eye-opener for anyone who has written off Van Damme as a B-movie actor on his way out. It’s a hard-hitting, unflinching and stylish actioner that’s well written, acted and executed. Heck, even the atmospheric music is good enough that I would consider purchasing the soundtrack. This is exactly the sort of movie that someone like Van Damme should be offering as it flies in the face of big budget Hollywood action films watered down by humor or fantasy CGI fights. If crime films like I’ll Sleep When I’m Dying starring Clive Owen or Michael Mann’s Collateral get you pumped, then Wake of Death is a must see.REVIEW: Wake of Death (2004),