[Deep Focus]
Directed by Ringo Lam
Written by Larry Ferguson
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Natasha Henstridge
USA, 1996


You've got to think twice before you go see a movie with a title like Maximum Risk

The title is generic. It's meaningless. And I can't believe it's good business. When you pick up the phone and dial 777-FILM, how in the world are you supposed to remember that the new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, the one that looked kind of cool in the trailers and is directed by some Chinese hot shot, is called, geez, Maximum Risk? Yuck.

The movie itself deserves your attention. For sweet bloody thrills, this one beats the summer blockbuster competition hands-down. Only Mission: Impossible came close to delivering as skillful a thriller, and I'll give Maximum Risk the edge simply because it's not as slick as the Tom Cruise picture, and therefore more gratifying in its execution.

Much to my surprise, Van Damme continues to develop as a pleasant, unpretentious action hero. His track record isn't as solid as Schwarzenegger's, but he's a hell of a lot more adventurous than Arnold. In 1993, Van Damme worked with Hong Kong's premier hardcore action director, John Woo, on a fairly lame movie called Hard Target. (If you can find a copy, Woo's radically different director's cut is much better than what was eventually released.) This follow-up is directed by Ringo Lam (City On Fire, Full Contact), whose Hong Kong films are distinguished action pictures that have consistently played second fiddle to Woo's more operatic offerings. The surprise here is that Maximum Risk is a more effective Hollywood action flick than either Hard Target or Woo's subsequent Broken Arrow.

Here's the rundown. Van Damme plays a French cop named Alain Moreau who is shaken when a policeman friend (Jean-Hugues Anglade) finds a corpse that's Alain's exact double. Turns out Alain was separated at birth from his twin brother, Michael, who has been killed by some Russian heavies (and some strangely American looking cops). Alain does some investigating. He finds that Michael had booked a flight to New York City, and received a message from someone there named Alex Bohemia. Assuming Michael's identity, Alain flies to New York and gets tangled up with Michael's girlfriend (Natasha Henstridge), the FBI, and the Russian mob in Little Odessa.

That's as much as you need to know. The story is adequate, but not overly involving -- and the major plot points are basically explained to you twice, just in case you go out for popcorn at the wrong moment. There's a love story, too, but I didn't find it terribly convincing, partly because ex-model Henstridge is too high-strung in her high-profile debut (she had precious few lines as the alien ice queen in Species). She's great to look at, and she can certainly read a line, but what she does here can't really be described as "acting." Of course, "acting" isn't really what she was hired for (I lost track of whether her shirt comes off more often than Van Damme's).

The movie is exceptionally violent, bordering on gratuity. (Keep that in mind when planning your date.) The stunts are spectacular, and the fact that you can spot Van Damme's stand-in makes his work no less impressive. There's only so much you can do with a car wreck, but this movie makes crisp, effective use of pile-ups in a handful of frenzied destruction derbies. And Lam has a surprising, innovative sense of exactly where the camera should go to catch any bit of action.

The main difference between Lam and Woo, I believe, is that while Woo relies on sheer spectacle to gas up his action show pieces, Lam has figured out more about using cinematic space and double-barreled points of view to make things run. Don't get me wrong -- when Chow Yun-Fat soars through space pumping bullets out of two pistols and chewing on a toothpick with glass and confetti littering the air around him in Woo's Hard-Boiled, it's an amazing moment. But it's a moment that's hard to reproduce in Hollywood. (For one thing, Hollywood doesn't yet have Chow Yun-Fat!)

While Woo's Hollywood movies look like the work of a talented upstart, Maximum Risk is a surprisingly confident picture. The very first shot of the film is an awkward overhead view of a chase through the streets of a European city, but Lam's use of odd camera angles becomes more efficient later on. The film editing is a particularly savvy complement to Lam's shooting style, accentuating rather than amplifying the action.

The performances could have used some fine tuning (in particular, there's an annoying, overwritten Manhattan cab driver in the early scenes who should have been toned down or jettisoned completely), and the movie doesn't always overcome the limitations of its genre. The story is a little mundane, although there are some effective moments involving Van Damme's unrequited feelings toward the brother he never knew he had. But it's not often that Hollywood cranks out a truly satisfying action picture, and it's doubly surprising that this one should come with a mere whisper of publicity. Van Damme fans should treat themselves to what may well be the man's best movie, and international action buffs will no doubt savor this flavorful Hong Kong/Hollywood hybrid.

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