Action Heroes – Van Damme: Maximum Risk

Maximum Risk was one of those Jean Claude Van Damme films I caught late one night on some obscure channel. I’d just entered my early teens and was at the height of my Van Damme obsession. I can remember watching it and finding it a little boring and painfully unexciting at times. I kept thinking “this isn’t as much fun as Street Fighter”. Thankfully my tastes have matured over the years and I recently revisited this often overlooked thriller.

With this feature Van Damme took part in his first collaboration (of three) with Hong Kong director Ringo Lam (City On Fire and Full Contact). Over the years since its first release this feature has slowly become an underrated and gritty action gem of a Van Damme film. Even if he does, you’ve guessed it, play twins again (and not for the last time). Thankfully, neither Van Dammes occupy the screen for too long.

While its plot is cookie cutter at best (a police officer finds he has a long lost twin brother he never knew of and has to find out the reasons why he was murdered (using his identity no less)), what ensues is a hefty amount of violent action antics, along with the obligatory Van Damme sex scene. This time with the rather shapely Natasha Henstridge.

The opening car chase sequence, choreographed by legendary stunt driver Remy (The Italian Job) Julienne, is both thrilling and fantastically staged. It provides one of the best moments in any Van Damme film (here playing the first doomed brother) as he hijacks a three-wheeled scooter in a small French town.

From then on the action flies thick and fast, first as Van Damme has a bone-crunching confrontation with a hulking Russian brute, played by Greek stunt man Stefanos Miltsakakis (all the while the building they’re fighting in is on fire).Van Damme even gets a chance to include his nifty (and admittedly powerful) roundhouse kick, which was used so expertly by fellow Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo (in Hard Target) minus overused slow motion.

Lam really knows how to show the brutal, less cartoony style of action on screen. Violence is never glamorous and it’s clear Lam knows this with; each punch, kick or slap is felt like a punch to the gut. He also seems to use a more visceral, hand-held approach to filming the fights. I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul Greengrass was slightly indebted to him and his filming style for the two Bourne sequels.

All of which leads me to the slightly homoerotic rematch with Van Damme vs Russian brute, this time in a sauna. Inexplicably neither of the towels seems to fall of the combatants while fighting. Barring this implausible feat of fabric engineering, this is again a brutal and uncomfortable fight. It feels less staged and closer to just a couple of guys knocking the living hell out of each other.

A chase sequence involving some death-defying near misses through a train station, including Van Damme leaping out of the way of a speeding train, is adrenaline pumping stuff. Revisiting this film I had genuinely forgotten about this sequence. Even after watching the recent Bond films (and again the aforementioned Bourne series), I still managed to gasp with excitement as the train narrowly misses our hero.

I mustn’t forget the final confrontation between these two men, taking place as it does within a small lift space. It’s a claustrophobic, down and dirty fight, again feeling as though it’s a prototype to the Bourne series. Director Lam seems to have been ahead of the curve in ’96; this is particularly evident during a bullet time-esque moment (pre-dating The Matrix by three years) as the camera follows a bullet Alain (Van Damme) fires. All of which ends in a close up of a bullet penetrating a van windscreen and the driver’s head. Cue painfully bloody headshot.

It’s clear that certain aspects of the film have dated, while the story becomes overly long-winded and tiresome towards its conclusion. But this set a new standard for Van Damme pictures as it attempted to be more than just WHAM, BAM ,VAN DAMME. This time fans got a little more along the lines of WHAM… oh wait…Van Damme is talking… hold on he’s stopped… BAM.

Derivative as far as action thrillers go, but as a vehicle for the “Muscles From Brussels” this is without a doubt a turning point for his career. After Lam and Van Damme re-teamed for The Replicant and In Hell, they managed to turn out some of his best films (particularly from his more recent canon), even if they where a tad uninspiring at times.

One thing I will say, I really don’t understand the tagline: “The nearer he gets to the truth, the closer he gets to the edge”. I never did find out what this “edge” was. I suppose I might never know. Shame really.

On quick side note, as I perused the DVD, I noticed that one of the chapters towards the end of the film was entitled ‘Van Dammage’ due to a climatic action sequence (involving an exploding van). Yes, it was even spelt in that ironic and pun-tastic way. It seems that even DVD companies like to make bad pop culture references. I on the other hand, let out a low groan like I’d just been told a bad joke by my father.

Dominic O’Brien

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