Is there any actor in cinema who has played their own double, twin or clone more often than Jean-Claude Van Damme? The man’s fascination with and attraction to playing that sort of role is by far one of the more intriguing aspects of his career, and it’s brought to the forefront again with one of the best films of his career thus far.
Released in 1996, Maximum Risk opens with a frantic foot and car chase. It turns out that this bloodied and desperate man who died attempting to evade his pursuers is Mikhail Suverov (Van Damme), a Russian gangster separated at birth from Alain Moreau (also Van Damme), a policeman living south of France. Unaware of his Mikhail’s existence until viewing his corpse inside an ambulance, Alain abandons everything to seek answers about his death and to hopefully learn more about the brother he never knew. Toss in cross-dealings with the Russian mob, corrupt FBI agents and his dead brother’s girlfriend (played by Natasha Henstridge, riding her post-Species heat for as much as it was worth) and you’ve got the makings of an entertaining action thriller that has a bit more meat on its narrative bones than your typical JCVD flick.
Maximum Risk is as action packed as any of Van Damme’s films, perhaps even more so actually. Rare is the occasion where we go more than 10 minutes without some kind of action breaking out on-screen. But this takes a bit of a detour from the man’s typical oeuvre. Yes, he’s a highly trained specialist who happens to swing a roundhouse kick extremely well, but Alain Moreau isn’t a brawler like a lot of his past heroes. He’s a cop who used to be a sniper in the military, so his style is a bit more brutal and precise than what one typically sees from Van Damme. The fights in general are much more crunchy and messy with plenty of broken bones, stabbings and general mayhem that’s a couple notches above the norm. There’s a knife-into-foot move during an elevator brawl that’s particularly painful looking.
In terms of action though this is by far the Van Damme flick with the most vehicular mayhem, a bit of rarity for the man, with two of the film’s longest action beats occupied by car chases. These are shot with the kind of frantic immediacy that would become popularized in the wake of Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity five years later. They don’t use sports cars or anything particularly fancy, just a Yugo and a Peugeot (at most) and a crappy NYC yellow cab, but doing so only adds to the sense of urgency and immediacy of the scene. There’s something about the way director Ringo Lam shoots these tiny, fragile cars careening through crowded European streets that makes it seem more dangerous than if they were behind the wheel of BMWs or a Mercedes.
It’s not difficult to see why Van Damme would make this the first of several collaborations with Lam (marking the second time he helped a major Hong Kong director make their Hollywood debut). There’s a grittiness and an edge, not just to the action but to the entire film that feels like a step above anything else the actor had done previously. It’s no surprise that two of Van Damme’s best films are from Hong Kong filmmakers as there’s nothing else quite like that particular flavor of action cinema. But it’s Lam’s direction in particular that meshes well with JCVD, perhaps even more so than what John Woo was able to accomplish.
Granted, I think Hard Target is the overall better and more entertaining film, but there’s something about the way Lam captures Van Damme in motion that feels much more dynamic that how we typically see him. Roundhouse kicks are nothing out of the ordinary in a JCVD flick, but watch him throw one in Maximum Risk and there’s a propulsive energy to his movement that positively crackles. It’s not difficult to see why he’d collaborate a second and third time with Lam.
But even amid the car chases and brutal fisticuffs, it’s also a film that further layers the core importance of family imbued in so many of Van Damme’s films. Whether he’s fighting to avenge or protect or provide for them, the notion of family continues to resonate with the actor. Instead of exploring the notion of duality as some might when playing their own twin, Van Damme seems more interested in using it as an emotional hook, having his character Alain become involved in the whole affair simply because he wants to know more about the brother who seemed so desperate to find him. Granted, a lot of that emotional center becomes pushed to the side in favor of chases and shootouts, but it’s still the driving force behind pretty much everything Alain does. If nothing else, he seems to enjoy playing two sides of a coin as it allows for him to stretch his dramatic muscles in ways most of his films don’t allow. We only see Mikhail for the duration of the opening scene, but Van Damme uses the space well. It’s rare that we get to see him play a character (however briefly) so battered and desperate but he sells it convincingly.
Granted, there’s a bit of wasted potential here, or at least some definite unexplored territory. In particular, there’s a moment when Alain, after savagely incapacitating two hapless henchmen staking out his brother’s old house, stares at fractured reflection of himself in the broken mirror he just used to beat one of said henchmen senseless. Alain looks on in horror at the distorted image with a mixture of shock and disgust, perhaps wondering who he was or what he was perhaps becoming. It’s a fleeting moment and is essentially forgotten from that moment forward, but it’s indicative at least of what Van Damme was going for with this. I’m curious of what he might accomplish tackling this sort of role in a film that isn’t all about fist fights and shootouts because he’s clearly drawn to themes of duality and identity.
Untapped potential aside, this is prime JCVD material, and I’m 100 percent excited to eventually get to Lam and Van Damme’s second film together wherein Van Damme plays … a clone of himself. Yes, they went back to that well again, but that’s okay because from what I’ve seen of Replicant it looks totally bonkers in the best way possible.
But before that, we go next to Van Damme’s third collaboration with a Hong Kong legend: Tsui Hark’s Double Team.
Van Dammage Report Statistics For Maximum Risk:
Number of splits: 0
Number of split-kicks: 0
Reason for being European: He was born in Europe.
Best line: Alain to his cab driver: “Like finding a penguin in a snowstorm.”
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
The Quest | Sudden Death | Street Fighter | Timecop | Hard Target | Nowhere to Run | Universal Soldier | Double Impact | Death Warrant | Lionheart | Kickboxer | Cyborg | Bloodsport