Dr T. White

Directed by: Ringo Lam
Written by: Larry Ferguson
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme (Alain Moreau), Natasha Henstridge (Alex Minetti)
Produced by: Columbia Pictures
Running Time: About 102 minutes.
Rating : *** 1/2 out of *****
Theatres : Cathay, Golden Village, Eng Wah, Riverside, UA Bugis Junction and Shaw Cinemas

OK, let's get one thing straight right away: MAXIMUM RISK is no BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (although it does have some Russians in it!), but it's not too bad, really. It's the new film from Ringo Lam, the latest Hong Kong filmmaker to defect to Hollywood, and stars that minor league Schwartzeneggar from Belgium, Jean-Claude Van Damme (who, you will recall, also starred in John Woo's maiden Hollywood effort, HARD TARGET).

In Lam's film, Van Damme plays Alain Moreau, a French cop (at least his accent makes more sense here than it did in Hard Target) who discovers that he was separated shortly after birth from a twin brother who was adopted by Russians. These Russians defected to the United States and moved into a black neighbourhood in New York (where, I suppose, they thought they wouldn't be noticed). This brother, Mikhail Suverov (played in his few scenes by...well, you know), becomes deeply involved in the Russian Mafia and the FBI (almost the same thing, I guess), and is killed in France (in the movie, things happen so fast that you don't have too much time to think about how weird this all is).

Moreau does what any good surviving twin brother would do and goes to New York to find out why Mikhail was killed, and why everyone in France who knows anything about him is also being killed (we wonder the same thing; I still do). In Little Odessa, he meets Mikhail's girlfriend, Alex (Natasha Henstridge, last seen in SPECIES), who helps him solve the mystery and adds immeasurably to the mise-en-scene (she has very nice breasts, and we get to seen them briefly in this movie; it was rated R in the US but is PG here, so they must have seen more of her breasts than we do).

This film lacks the gloss and high production values of such other action movies as BROKEN ARROW, THE FUGITIVE, HARD TARGET, or anything starring Arnold, but that works to its benefit, I think. After all, one thing that's been missing from Woo's Hollywood films is that certain Hong Kong funkiness that we all know and love (well, some of us do). Movies like this shouldn't be too pretentious, and that is part of the problem with some of these other films: they try to be too "big" in terms of special effects and sheer spectacle.

MAXIMUM RISK has its share of car chases and explosions, but they don't overwhelm the movie or detract our attention from the narrative (not too much, anyway). The emphasis throughout is on the characters and their interactions (even if, at times, they don't make a hell of a lot of sense). In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of the film is a minor character, a rather overeager New York cabbie (Frank Van Keeken from TV's "Kids in the Hall"), who begins as something of a joke but becomes an important part of the story. Unfortunately, by the time we have come to really get interested in him, he...well, you'll see.

The movie also features some set pieces of the type that we have come to expect from Lam and his Hong Kong compatriots. One is a fight in a Russian sauna, with lots of sweaty, muscular male flesh (this one will appeal to certain parts of the audience more than others), bullets in heads, and vodka. Another, my personal favorite, is a fight in a meat packing house, featuring pig carcasses and a chainsaw. And even the predictable car chases are more Hong Kong than Hollywood, as they trash those quaint French cafes, vegetable carts, and, well, French people that, we all know in our hearts, deserve trashing just for being so damn quaint.

Of course, the movie does have its share of silliness. For example, while beating the crap out of an obnoxious Russian thug who obviously deserves what he's getting, Alain stops long enough to look at his own reflection in the cracked mirror with which he has been whacking the guy on the head. In an unnecessarily dramatic moment, he apparently is shocked at what he sees, at what he has become. But what has he become? A tough cop who beats the hell out of a guy who tried to kill him? Doesn't sound too unreasonable to me, considering the genre. But let's face it, any time Van Damme tries to be dramatic, he looks silly.

So MAXIMUM RISK is a little different from most other action films. While watching it, I was surprised, and a little disappointed, in the relative lack of pyrotechnics. But watching some of these other action films is sort of like experiencing a sugar rush; after the initial excitement, there's not much left. Although it's short on spectacle, Lam's film leaves a better and more lasting impression, I think. I'm more impressed by it now than I was while watching it, and to me, that's a good sign. Go see MAXIMUM RISK, but don't expect a typical Hollywood action movie; expect a sort of funky Hong Kong-Hollywood action movie.

The Flying Inkpot Rating System:
* Wait for the TV2 broadcast.
** A little creaky, but still better than staying at home with Gotcha!
*** Pretty good, bring a friend.
**** Amazing, potent stuff.
***** Perfection. See it twice.

Dr T. White teaches Film at the English Language and Literature Department of the National University of Singapore, but don't hold this against him.

Other film reviews by this writer can be obtained from the InkVault by doing a key word search with this writer's name.
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