Tom Jolliffe looks at the upcoming Jean-Claude Van Damme Netflix vehicle, The Last Mercenary. Can we call it a comeback?
In 2008, Jean-Claude Van Damme was some years deep into straight to DVD land, where mainstream interest has all but gone, leaving only the aficionados behind. For a number of years after his last theatrically released film (Universal Soldier: The Return), Van Damme starred in a number of low budget action thrillers, very much delivering what one would expect from something landing straight on the DVD shelves. Some were better than others, though a more grizzled and craggy Van Damme had taken a decidedly more mature turn in characters and tone.
Gone were the high flying helicopter kicks and fight heavy films. Gone was an overriding sense of optimism, triumph over evil and morally upstanding characters, replaced with darker roles. Van Damme played a violent gangster in Wake of Death, which featured an intensity and conviction in his role not previously seen, but let down by inconsistent direction, over-stylised editing and a routine script. He then pulled off a Bad Lieutenant in 2006 with Until Death. Once again, a good performance, a film better than his general standard at the time, but one which turned into Regarding Henry for the latter half, and became half as interesting. He still managed to work with good directors, a final fling with Ringo Lam for In Hell, or later, 2009’s first collaboration with John Hyams’ in Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which was an interestingly grim reimagining of Luc Devereaux.
It was in 2008 though, where Van Damme truly surprised people. For one, he found himself in an indie film with proper indie sensibility. It was a fictional version of himself, and a film that blended drama, comedy and no shortage of heartfelt, authentic pathos. It had a good festival run, gained some traction and it also took many critics completely by surprise. JCVD was entertaining as well as honest. The films infamous moment came in a fourth wall breaking diversion from the film set, where Van Damme addressed the audience. He spoke from the heart with emotion and honesty, then got back on with the film at hand (where JC, in the midst of a custody battle, walks straight into an ill-conceived post office heist and finds himself as chief suspect). That monologue aside, Van Damme delivers a great performance that took every ounce of improvement he’d showed for a decade, and encased it into a more unique vehicle, that wasn’t the atypical straight to video action film about revenge or taking down terrorists, or whatever.
People now began to wonder if we might see a career renaissance with JC re-invented, not just as a kickboxing action man, but as a legit character actor. He could inject pathos into his roles. He could be comedic too, and he could be powerful. He could do things, in an interesting way that perhaps many of his action contemporaries weren’t able to do. Van Damme could make that genre transition or do more interesting things with it. That revolution never happened. He became sidetracked by a pet project (The Eagle Path, or the other titles it has been known by) that still remains unreleased. The odd interesting diversion aside (such as his two Universal Soldier sequels under the aforementioned Hyams), he also found himself back doing straight up low budget genre films. Assassinations Games and Six Bullets for example, were good for what they are, but there was a very definite sense that JC could do more. His roles were becoming pre-occupied with misery. Dour, beaten down characters in humourless films, where the drama wasn’t as deftly skilled as it needed to be to show how good Van Damme can be.
A few more false dawns happened. The Expendables 2 brought Van Damme back into pop cultural relevance. He steals the film, but still feels underutilised. What it did for him was better for securing high profile and memorable advertisement bits than actual films. Kill Em All was definitely not the kind of renaissance film Van Damme deserved. He also had Jean-Claude Van Johnson, the short lived and mildly diverting Amazon series. It came at a point where the studio was just beginning an onslaught into production. It perhaps came a year or two before they found their feet and the standard of shows and movies has become better since. That aside, though it had a few riffs on the self reference he’d successfully pulled off in JCVD, it just didn’t land enough punches and subsequently got cancelled after one series.
Still, he had the Coors light and Volvo truck ads and still carried with him a nostalgic warmth people respond well too. It felt like a move to the burgeoning streaming production houses was inevitable. As many a waning theatrical star has found, there’s a very definite audience on Netflix et al, for the old school. Adam Sandler has a new lease of life there, among others. It was ultimately a streaming service that has given the world the much vaunted Snyder Cut of Justice League, as well as a new Snyder zombie opus too. Arnold Schwarzenegger has something in the works and many of the other action heroes of yesteryear might be better served by these studios, where a wider audience awaits, and they can have a last hurrah. The Expendables for example. would find a great home at one of the big streaming giants, whereas the theatrical opening in the West seems beyond the franchise now.
Now Van Damme gets another, and hopefully not final, stab at a streaming collaboration with The Last Mercenary. Netflix will deliver the next Van Damme vehicle, and judging by the trailer, it has the kind of production value he wouldn’t get in the standard straight to DVD actioners he’s been doing. Filmed in his native tongue too, the film looks like just the right balance of action, comedy, nostalgia and JC-in jokes. The Last Mercenary in fact, is exactly the type of film Van Damme should have been doing in the wake of JCVD. It’s a long time coming, but this could well be another comeback, and one which might stick. If the viewership is there (and Netflix ratings seem to be high for these kind of things) then maybe he’ll do a few more films with them, perhaps even allowing further opportunity to show he’s become a very accomplished actor.
For a long time too, Van Damme has tried to get sequels off the ground for the likes of Double Impact, Lionheart (Lionnnhhheeeaarrt!) and more. It may just be that if all complicated rights issues can be sorted, that Netflix could be the place to do them. Those returns to nostalgia driven action aside though, I’d really hope to see Van Damme given the opportunity to surprise people as an actor again, to get his ‘Wrestler‘ or ‘Uncut Gems.’ What are your thoughts on The Last Mercenary? Will you be watching this when it premieres on Netflix? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/