There are always big “What if…” scenarios that loom in film history.
What if Steven Spielberg had never made Jaws? What if David Lynch had made Return of the Jedi? What if Tom Selleck had been cast as Indiana Jones? What if Alejandro Jodorowsky had been able to see his vision of Dune brought to life? And after watching The Quest I’m left wondering, What if Jean-Claude Van Damme had directed more?
Now, that might not be as monumental a scenario as some of those others, but it’s a question that I’d give almost anything to have answered.
The Quest is what some might consider as a “lesser film,” and they’re not necessarily wrong. This isn’t one of the man’s best works, but it is one that grows in favor each time I revisit it. It’s a fairly “safe” film, in that it’s essentially one huge riff on some of Van Damme’s most notable prior films. In fact, you could almost make the argument he remade Bloodsport with this. The central hook is nearly identical, involving a super-secret martial arts tournament that brings in fighters of various styles from around the world, Van Damme running from the law, a loud-mouthed and gregarious American fighter whom Van Damme befriends and a perky, inquisitive female journalist. Oh, and he shares the “story by” credit with none other than Frank Dux himself.
But safe isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it makes sense that the man would want to stick with what he knows best when making such a huge creative leap as to work both in front of and behind the camera. The result is a film that’s undoubtedly familiar, but ultimately one that manages to deliver enough of its own unique feel so as not to be a complete retread.
What is obvious, though, is that Van Damme very much fancies himself a storyteller. The entire film is book-ended with an aged Christopher Dubois (Van Damme) taking out some ne’er do wells in a pub before reminiscing about his days long ago. We then fade to 1925 New York City where Chris is a street performer and a Fagin-style father figure to a cadre of young, orphaned thieves. Already The Quest feels like something of it’s own kind among the rest of JCVD’s work thus far. The period setting, the bits of comedy, it’s a strong and memorable start and it’s a nice sort of mission statement for the rest of the film. There will, obviously, be plenty of fights and action, but Van Damme right out the gate is aiming for something that’s more a bit more ambitious, more grand than anything else we’ve seen from him.
After some gangsters raid their hideout aiming to retrieve some stolen cash, Christopher stows away on a cargo freighter. Discovered as a stowaway and forced into labor, he continues to not catch a break when the freighter is boarded by pirates. Led by the suave and scheming Lord Edgar Dobbs (erstwhile James Bond, Roger Moore), sells Christopher into slavery despite promises of taking him back to America.
Six months later and Christopher is now an expert in Muay Thai martial arts, giving Dobbs the brilliant idea of entering him into a secret international fighting tournament, which rewards its winner with a giant, gold statue. (Which Dobbs, of course, intends to take for himself.) Entering into the mix also are two more Americans: Maxie Devine (James Remar), a renowned boxer who intends to fight in the tournament (but ultimately allows Christopher to fight in his stead), and journalist Carrie Newton (Janet Gunn).
If there’s a major flaw to the film it’s that the script is both overstuffed and also strangely lacking. There’s not a lot going on, but the film also seems to take its sweet time to actually get all the players in view and at last get to the tournament itself. Maxie and Carrie don’t show up in earnest until at least halfway through. As a result Maxie ends up being little more than a “key” of sorts, showing essentially as a way to get Christopher into the invite-only tournament. Meanwhile Carrie has almost no bearing or impact on things as a whole, nor does she have enough screen time to do or say much of note at all.
Even Christopher himself gets a bit of the short end of the stick. After getting double-crossed, we don’t see Christopher again until Dobbs discovers him at a Muay Thai fight several scenes later. This robs the film of not only some much needed time with its main character, but it also shifts the narrative from being focused on his journey. Christopher begins to feel a bit like a supporting player in his own story, in fact. It also deprives us of any sort of a training sequence or montage. Cliché as those are, this is a film that definitely could have used something with that sort of flavor. To see him go from streetwise thief to jaded, angry killing machine is a fairly jarring leap.
Thankfully there’s more than enough good material here to make this worth watching. As stated earlier, from behind the camera Van Damme tries his damnedest to give this the feel of sweeping adventure story, filled with lush and exotic locations. Temples, beaches, underground fighting rings, fancy hotels. It’s a nice step up from some of the more drab scenery that tended to dominate his preceding films. Likewise, Moore and Remar add some much appreciated color and fun with their performances. Moore in particular seems to visibly relish playing such a suave scallywag.
As for the tournament itself, it’s always a fun treat to watch fighters with such disparate styles go up against each other, and Van Damme wisely samples from a wide berth of combatants. Sumo, capoeira, kung fu, taekwondo, boxing, Spanish and African styles. It’s probably just as diverse as the lineup seen in Bloodsport, but there’s something about the presentation here that makes it feel a bit more considered. Maybe it’s the more exotic setting of a Tibetan temple for the fighting arena that does it. Regardless, there’s a genuine love, appreciation and respect for fighting of all styles that comes across in the way Van Damme and cinematographer David Gribble shoot the fight scenes. It’s not just a showcase for Van Damme’s character and his moves.
And ultimately that’s what really impresses here. This could have easily been a vanity project, something that constantly put Van Damme front and center at every single opportunity. And perhaps this is why the brief (but not inconsequential) disappearance of Christopher doesn’t merit harsher criticism. Van Damme wanted to make his mark with this film. He wanted to come out of the gate with something that felt like it was berthed from classic elements that also spoke to and paid tribute to something he cared deeply about, all while feeling like a film that would be familiar to his fans. And for the most part, he accomplished that. It certainly has its share of lumps that could have been smoothed out with another pass or two with another writer, but taken as a whole this is an admirable first attempt that shows Van Damme had real passion from behind the camera that would likely only have grown had the film either been more of a success or his immediate career not taken such a downward turn soon after. He wouldn’t get back behind the camera until 2010 with Soldiers (aka The Eagle Path, aka Frenchy, aka Full Love).
Van Dammage Report Statistics For The Quest:
Number of splits: 0
Number of split kicks: 1
Reason for being European: None given
Maxie: “Where’d you get that haircut, the Army?”
Christopher: “No, uh … I’m a sailor.” (It’s Van Damme’s delivery that makes this.)
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Sudden Death | Street Fighter | Timecop | Hard Target | Nowhere to Run | Universal Soldier | Double Impact | Death Warrant | Lionheart | Kickboxer | Cyborg | Bloodsport