As a long-term Seagal apologist it pains me to say it but the portly Buddhist fighting cupboard could only dream of making a film as good as Van Damme’s latest, Six Bullets. The film isn’t even that good – by conventional, mainstream standards – it just happens to rank amidst the crème de la crème of straight-to-video actioners. Boasting a reasonably coherent and unusually twist-laden story, some well-developed characterisations, halfway decent performances and – most importantly – several impressive action set-pieces, Jean-Claude Van Damme has successfully managed to capitalise on his recent, atypically villainous (and reasonably well-praised) Big Screen Expendables 2 performance by delivering to fans a solid DTV action-thriller that engages for its unusually substantial near-two-hour duration. And with another, even darker and more impressive-looking Universal Soldier sequel around the corner, it seems that the Muscles from Brussels is committed to the kind of comeback that escaped Seagal some time ago.
Samson Gaul is an ex-foreign legion mercenary-turned-missing-children-specialist, whose latest assignment goes drastically wrong when his actions leave four children amidst the casualties. Traumatised by this horrific turn of events, he retires from action and takes up work as a part-time butcher and full-time drunk, but when a visiting American couple lose their teenage daughter to sex traffickers, it’s up to Gaul to pull himself together and get back into the game.
For years Van Damme has been struggling in the same DTV mire that has plagued numerous other 80s action relics ever since the bubble burst in the mid-nineties. Seagal, Lundgren, Snipes – and even Stallone – all trod this same unstable ground at various points in their careers and the majority of them still enjoy residence there. Indeed, if not for Stallone’s valiant efforts to bring old school hardcore action back into the fore (Rambo 4, Rocky 6, and the Expendables movies, not to mention his upcoming Bullet to the Head, which looks excellent), I doubt if any of them would have even had a chance of returning to the Big Screen.
Van Damme had really been through the ringer, both professionally and privately. Behind the scenes he would suffer from broken down relationships, horrific custody battles, drug abuse issues and worse. His movies would often reflect this, with some of his absolute worst efforts being plagued by body double work which made you wonder whether he was even still capable of the one thing that fans expected from him: action.
Ironically, Van Damme had always wanted to break away from dumb actioners. Sure, he probably understood that the shift was only going to be a slight one – his aspirations were not unrealistic; he just wanted to do intelligent actioners rather than dumb ones. He wanted to have better characters to play; a better script to work with. He wanted to act.
What? Van Damme? Act? You’re having a laugh! No, I kid you not. If you have any doubts – which you undoubtedly do, given his track record: he’s more famous for playing two dumb characters in a movie than one single character with a brain – then I highly recommend you push the clever satire JCVD to the top of your Lovefilm rental list. Aside from being a decent drama-thriller, it’s got one of the most heartfelt, genuine scenes in it – arguably the most sincere piece of dialogue ever delivered by any of his counterparts (up to and including Stallone); a true bit of touching ‘acting’ even though, in reality, Van Damme didn’t have to act, he just had to tell his side of the story.
Anybody who has seen JCVD – anybody who has watched that scene – will realise that Van Damme is capable of far more than just doing his trademark splits or high-kicks or spinning kicks or any other damn type of kicks. Hell, I reckon if you had him do any of his movies over again, only in his native French language, you would be shocked by the noticeable improvement in his performance. JCVD was not enough though, and so, despite it being a desperate last cry from Van Damme to be taken seriously, the man would still struggle to escape the DTV pit of cannon-fodder actioners.
Thankfully, he had a few high cards up his sleeve. Perhaps not aces, but good cards nonetheless. Universal Soldier: Regeneration is, without a doubt, one of the best DTV movies that I have ever seen. Although it doesn’t have the budget, or the cheesy over-the-top entertainment value, of the original Universal Soldier, it makes up for that in understated menace and chilling atmosphere. It’s a brutal, punishing movie and, even playing a seemingly soulless UniSol, Van Damme managed to bring a striking amount of tragedy to the role – the same role which, well over a decade earlier, was pure mainstream fluff for action audiences to lap up.
He’s also been working on a labour-of-love project for several years now – The Eagle Path (or whatever they finally decide to call it) – a film which he not only stars in but wrote, edited, produced and directed. I guess we’ll have to wait until next year to see if it’s actually any good but it’s certainly something he has invested in. He also finally agreed to participate in Stallone’s ensemble Expendables franchise, taking a villainous role in the sequel and proving himself to be one of the absolute highlights in an otherwise pretty mediocre follow-up (indeed he was so good that Stallone is trying to coax him back for the third movie to play the twin-brother of his ill-fated villain from Expendables 2!). He has also filmed another action-thriller with director Peter Hyams, the man who is probably most famous for doing the Connery High Noon-in space, Outland; Capricorn One, and the sequel to Kubrick’s seminal 2001, 2010. Hyams has also given us two of Van Damme’s most successful ‘golden era’ actioners – the original Universal Soldier (he would go on to serve as DOP on Universal Soldier: Regeneration, with his son John Hyams directing) and Sudden Death. Reuniting Van Damme and Hyams on the upcoming Enemies Closer (yes, another one which will probably have a last-minute name-change) looks like it could also be something special. Even before then we’re going to get Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning, which has already had rave reviews on the festival circuit (no, not Cannes). I simply can’t wait for that one.
So what does he offer us in the meantime? Six Bullets – formerly titled The Butcher (which would have worked just as effectively) – is actually a reasonably good DTV offering. It may not quite have the moody atmosphere, violent brutality or cool stylishness of Universal Soldier: Regeneration, but, aside from that, it’s the best actioner Van Damme’s done in almost a decade (since his Wake of Death / In Hell double-header). Ironically, what lets it down is not the story or the performances, but the style and direction – if this had been shot with the same gusto as Wake of Death (or US:R), it would have probably been shouted about a great deal more; with the same cries of theatrical release coming from fans who, for once, wouldn’t have been completely delusional.
Story-wise it may not seem like much, but Six Bullets actually appears to have had a fair amount of thought put into it. The entire plot resembles some kind of bastardised hybrid of Taken and Man on Fire – which is far from a bad thing – only, here, almost every time you expect it to go in one direction, it shifts off-target slightly and throws you off-track. It’s far from commendably original, but it does have a nice fresh feel around the edges – it starts with Van Damme’s character establishing himself through a huge action-scene where bodies fall and things blow up, and makes you think you’re watching just another Van Damme film; but then it throws a spanner in the works (in a good way) and suddenly has him mess up. It repeats this formula a couple of times and, before you know it, you’re actually enjoying the innovation. Of course, in the meantime, as Van Damme’s character is getting put through the ringer, the man who spent a considerable portion of JCVD pleading to be given an opportunity to act gets to do just that.
It may not be JCVD-quality, but it’s sure as hell a lot better than you’d expect from Van Damme or (m)any of his brethren. He broods and convincingly drowns his sorrows in alcohol; he’s literally haunted by the mutilated bodies of the girls he got killed – he’s a tortured anti-hero who has more depth and character to him than a dozen high-kicking half-wits from the likes of Double Impact and Maximum Risk. It’s undoubtedly the best acting performance of his action career, and, considering he is in the best physical shape he’s been in for well over a decade, it’s one of the best action performances he’s given in quite some time too. Now if only he could combine this kind of more multi-dimensional character and subsequent stronger performance with a production that actually valued his talent, and delivered in terms of direction, style and, I’m afraid to say, production value.
Unfortunately, for all the positives to Six Bullets, it still resides firmly in the low budget DTV category. It may well be the best of the best when it comes to DTV offerings, but there’s still nothing here that could truly warrant a theatrical run – it’s just not quite up to scratch in that regard. Sure, what more do you expect when the movie was made for about a tenner, but still even some of Van Damme’s other DTV efforts have arguably had more atmosphere and style to them – and for similar budgets (as mentioned, Wake of Death, and his latest Universal Soldier sequels) – and it really lets down the rest of the great production, which otherwise boasts decent spurts of drama, plot twists and some thoroughly impressive action. Certainly it’s a noticeable step up from Assassination Games, his last DTV outing (which was also far from bad – no coincidence that it was by the same director as Six Bullets), but there’s still something lacking.
Even the supporting cast don’t really do the film any favours, despite some valiant efforts. Stargate Atlantis’s Joe Flanigan showcases both some decent charisma and a competent fight skills, but is underused as the distraught father of the missing girl, whereas Holby City’s Anna-Louise Plowman is no stranger to DTV action vehicles (having played in Seagal’s atmospheric, above-average The Foreigner) but doesn’t convince as the distraught mother, despite some nice character twists. Van Damme also really should stop drawing his ‘acting’ children into his movies – his son, Kristopher Van Varenberg, has featured in almost a dozen of Van Damme’s flicks, and simply hasn’t progressed as an actor (possibly because he simply can’t act). Here he actually plays Van Damme’s character’s son – which is fine – but he doesn’t convince at all as an embassy worker with any kind of clout whatsoever. Van Damme’s daughter, Bianca Bree, is more effective as the villain’s sex-slave-turned-moll, although her character development is particularly awkward at the end, somehow magically becoming a goodie despite them not devoting the time required to make that a logical twist. Certainly a better calibre of supporting cast would do these Van Damme films no end of good, and perhaps further enable the man to showcase the underrated acting skills that he does have.
When it comes to just the pure action, I doubt many will be disappointed – there’s a slew of decent action sequences, from the excellent opening stealth-attack (it doesn’t really ever get as good as this again) to the double bar-fight; from the assault on the mobster’s secure estate to the painful meat locker attack (where we are reminded, once again, that Van Damme is in shockingly good shape) and the bazooka-wielding climax. Of course it’s all limited by budget, but there are still a few semi-decent explosions, some nice shootouts and a fair amount of fisticuffs all from Van Damme himself, who definitely tries to give a level of experience and expertise to his character beyond just the usual one-on-one kicking. It’s just one of the refreshing aspects of the production, which tries so valiantly to escape its DTV origins, even if it never succeeds in such regard.
If you’re a Van Damme fan, this is undoubtedly one of his better recent efforts, further cementing the fact that he is genuinely making an admirable attempt to not only stay in shape for his action sequences but also play better characters in better stories, and provide better acting performances within. I’d be surprised if Van Damme fans didn’t rank it as an 8/10 – or higher! – whereas those with no real opinions either way when it comes to the high-kicking 80s expendable would probably flip the rating and give it a 5, deriding it for its poor production value and unremarkable direction. Still, the answer lies somewhere in-between, and Six Bullets remains a competent little low budget actioner that keeps the embers glowing in the hope that Van Damme will only further ascend in this twilight-of-his-career attempt at a comeback.
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