Action Heroes – Van Damme: Nowhere To Run

I’m not sure what film or TV show was first to market (so to speak) with the concept of the lone drifter warrior with a ‘past’ who finds wholesome but vulnerable ‘folks’ under threat from some ruthless, ambitious business concern, and fights for the underdogs. I mean Van Damme does it here, Seagal did it, Swayze did it more than once, and for that matter Eastwood has done it numerous times too. And then there was TV like The Hulk, The A-Team and The Fall Guy all using variations on the theme too. It’s probably one of those perennial evergreen story models that’s as old as cinema, if not older.

This being the case, the premise of Nowhere To Run automatically seemed well trodden even when the film was new. This despite the trailer declaring “It’s Van Damme like you’ve never seen him before”. Well, film trailer hyperbole aside, it was new ground for Van Damme in some ways, but the premise itself, in a broader sense was tired to the point of running the risk of falling asleep.

I didn’t mind this too much though for basically two reasons. The first is that I was still at this time very much into Van Damme’s particular brand of hero characters (and associated roundhouse kicking hi-jinks). The second was, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, a lingering crush on the film’s leading lady. Rosanna Arquette had been a laminated list contender for me since Desperately Seeking Susan eight years previously, and she now tended to spend a lot of her time in movies either topless, in her underwear or at least sporting the kind of sweater nipples that could cut glass. Arquette is one of those actresses you either dig or you don’t. She has a certain look and style about her that polarises opinion. I think her casting as Clydie is spot on, and she does the strong but strung out, just about holding everything together routine quite well. She’s certainly more than a match for Van Damme’s acting skills.

Speaking of casting, accompanying Jean Claude and Ms Arquette is the venerable Joss Ackland as unscrupulous property developer Franklin Hale. Ackland was enjoying a run of bad guy roles (Lethal Weapon 2, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey etc), and can add an invaluable heavyweight gravitas to a film. Hiring at least one acting heavyweight seems to be a common trait of this type of movie, and I’m not completely sold on the overall effectiveness of it, particularly here. An analogy that springs to mind is the idea of some electrical doohicky that runs on 6 AA Batteries which are all a bit tired and run down. Replacing one of the batteries with a super high powered fresh one ain’t gonna reinvigorate the entire device, the best you can hope for is a slight gain in performance and longevity – hur hur. Thus, while Ackland is dependably weighty; he’s under written, underused, and can’t singlehandedly make up for any deficiencies elsewhere. Not pointing any fingers of course, and in fact the film doesn’t have any terrible main players.

So back to the rest of the cast. Also adding a good dose of malevolent believability we have Ted Levine as hired ‘security’ wacko Dunston. Levine of course like Ackland before him has now been round the block quite a bit and you’ll have seen him in a gajillion movies and US TV shows. At the time he was most well known for his role as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of The Lambs, and it was definitely on the back of that notoriety that the years immediately after ‘Silence’ were peppered with quite a few baddies; Dunston of course being one of them. His character is menacing and does eventually get a chance to do his thing, but again feels a little underused.

Also joining the cast as Arquette’s son is Kieran Culkin who puts in a nice enough performance and comes across quite sweetly.

So Van Damme had already dabbled with the idea of his character being less than squeaky and/or wanted by the law in some of his previous movies but this time he went so far as to be an actual criminal on the run after a prison bus breakout at the top of the movie. Admittedly we’re immediately informed that although he is a bonafide criminal, he was actually not guilty of the murder he was doing time for and voluntarily took the rap for it. This obviously sets up a certain sympathetic leaning in the audience, but it’s good that at least a modicum of antihero depth is injected.

As already sketched out, the premise sees Sam (our Jean Claude) busted out of a prison bus by the dude he took the aforementioned rap for. The dude meets his karmic destiny during the escape and Sam eventually happens upon smallholding rancher and widow Clydie (Arquette) and her two small children.

At first Sam’s intentions are not clear as he twice enters the house in the night (why do Americans never lock their doors?!), clumsily alerting the elder of the children ‘Mookie’ (Culkin) who instead of being afraid, is intrigued about this night visitor.

Anyway, Sam is camping out by a lake on Clydie’s land and is seemingly trying to figure out his next move when he witnesses Clydie and her kids being intimidated by baseball bat wielding thugs on her land. Sam blows the hurt whistle on those guys, after which he gradually begins to get close to Clydie and the children (much to the chagrin of local police sheriff Lonnie Cole (Edward Blatchford)). Y’see until Sam showed up, Cole was engaged in a casual sexual relationship with Clydie, and at the same time trying the ‘softly softly’ approach in coercing her to sell her property. Why? Well, turns out he’s been co-opted by a large property development company headed by Ackland, and they need her land to complete a redevelopment (Golf Course) deal. Clydie’s refusal to sell up is obviously putting an ever larger spanner in the works. The timely arrival of JCVD changes the playing field even further. Things become more and more desperate and the bullying tactics used more extreme, but Sam takes care of business every time until the inevitable desperate showdown with Dunston happens.

Naturally Sam prevails and the bad guys are resoundingly Van Dammaged! Sam and Clydie declare their love for each other and Sam hands himself in to the authorities to face the music like a true hero (he is a wanted fugitive after all).

Watching it again, I was surprised at how gentle the film is. The developing relationships between Sam, Clydie, the kids and even Sheriff Cole are often quite sweet, nuanced and low key. I really liked Blatchford’s character, as he is the most conflicted. His character eventually shows a noble heart when push comes to shove, and people are getting hurt. The film is paced in a way that allows all this development without too much of the forced/rushed feel most action movies feel the need to employ when getting to know the characters. Strictly speaking this movie doesn’t quite fit the action mould anyway, and plays much more like it’s trying to be a drama. The ‘action’ when it happens is short and sweet and actually feels a little intrusive. Sam’s abilities are kept slightly vague as well. There’s none of the “check out my double spinning round kick, look at my massive muscular arse, I can do the splits as well y’know” so common up until now in Van Damme’s films. Also quite telling is how toned down the violence in general is (when it happens). The movie carried a 15 certificate on its theatrical and home media releases in the UK and I’m sure today could get away with a 12 if a certain pair of Arquette shaped boobies were edited out.

Perhaps Van Damme was trying to flex his acting muscles a little and market a version of his persona down into a more accessible family movie format. Certainly following up with kiddie friendly video game movie Street Fighter the following year seems to perhaps add weight to that theory. You have to wonder; if Street Fighter had been a runaway success instead of a lumpen turd of a disappointment, would Van Damme have been encouraged to continue further along these PG lines? I actually kind of checked out of Van Damme’s movies after this and never really checked in again.

Anyway, as the voice over said, it’s Van Damme like you’ve never seen him before, and the cynical side of you says “Yeah, ‘not’ doing many of the things he’s become popular doing!” I feel this would be too unfair a dismissal of what actually turned out to be a nice looking, sober paced action drama. Our boy gets to act a tadge more than normal opposite some credible co-stars and acquits himself well. There’s some really rather nice framing and cinematography and in places there is an expansive almost bucolic feel. You sense that this really is an idyllic place, and that it too should be preserved and protected just as much as the good people who dwell within.

There’s really only two things that still jar a little with this movie. One is the aforementioned Joss Ackland. It seems to me that the writers got so caught up in all the frisson between the leads that they neglected to really define the Joss role and write some effective scenes for him. He’s a great actor, hired, one would imagine adding that gravitas mentioned previously; yet he’s criminally underused, just popping up here and there. The final insult being the contrived manner of his comeuppance. He’s a business tycoon, a bent one sure (is there any other kind?), but a businessman nonetheless. Why the hell would he come to Clydie’s home with Dunston, when he knew it would get ugly? He’s hired Dunston to do the ‘wet work’ if need be, and in reality; he’d be out on the links with his 9 iron while this business was going down. The only reason he’s there is so the film can tie everything up neatly in one confrontation.

The other thing that kinda rankles is the question of where these construction companies hire their workman? Is there a notice in the local job centre that says “JCB drivers wanted, must have construction experience, proper licences, be totally corrupt and willing to crush a man with your digger bucket if asked”

Know what I mean? I’m imagining one of these guys going home to his wife, sitting down to a plate of chicken fried roadkill and his wife asking “nice day at work dear?” and the repy “Yeah ok I guess, goddam foreman was bustin’ my balls all morning, but in the afternoon I got to set fire to some schmuck’s house, kill a cow and beat up a few kids”. Seriously it just amazes me that US movies, and TV shows are chockablock with this kind of employee.

Before re-watching the movie, I remembered it reasonably fondly. As I said, It was pretty much the last JCVD release to really hit my radar. I never really followed him after that I’m sorry to say. Watching it now for this retro, I think I like it a nudge more than I did then, despite the aforementioned neg points. I enjoyed it in a way I might not have been mature enough to at 22. Cripes I sound old don’t I? Jeez! Well it is what it is.

Ben Pegley

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