Desert Heat exiles Jean-Claude Van Damme to the desert, both literally and figuratively.
After the abject creative, critical and commercial failure of Universal Soldier: The Return, Van Damme would not see another film widely released in theaters until 2012’s The Expendables 2. Now trapped (for more than a decade) in the desert of direct-to-video releases, one would be forgiven for considering this something of a death sentence for the man’s career. And yet Desert Heat, uneven though it is, proves that maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.
Van Damme plays Eddie Lomax, an ex-military drifter who finds himself pitting a tiny desert town’s rival gangs against each other. Yes, it’s essentially yet another remake of Akira Kurosawa’s seminal samurai classic Yojimbo, though only Sergio Corbucci’s Django comes close to matching it in terms of sheer oddity. To wit, the film contains the following — Danny Trejo as Eddie’s Native American war buddy; Pat Morita as a cheerful old man who takes way too much pleasure and pride in his ability to dispose of dead bodies; an innkeeper and his Bible-thumping, snake-handling, booze-guzzling, Peeping Tom wife; and Vincent Schiavelli as Mr. Singh, the owner of a dive bar called The Bomb Bay Club who speaks with a cartoonish Indian accent. (Yes, that last bit reads as potentially racist, but in execution it’s far too silly to ever cause serious offense.)
Desert Heat (aka Inferno aka Coyote Moon) never reaches the fever dream levels of, say, Knock Off or even Double Team, but it’s certainly more a slice of weirdness than one would expect from John G. Avildsen, the director of The Karate Kid and Rocky. But it’s tough to decide whether that proves a net benefit to the film. On the one hand, it’s always enjoyable to see one of Van Damme’s films carry on with that kind of zing. It certainly allows it to stand out from a lot of his other work. On the other, though, it tends to undercut the emotional center for which Avildsen (who fought to have his name removed from the film) is often aiming. The heart of the film is Eddie’s quest to purge the blackness eating away at his soul, a hard fought quest for redemption. The film opens with Eddie desperate for the specter of his war buddy to grant him permission to end it all and rid his mind of the guilt that plagues his conscience. Then a couple scenes later we’re watching a cartoonish old woman swig from a whiskey bottle and dance with a boa constrictor. One gets the sense based on the opening that Van Damme wanted this to be a chance to sink his teeth into a meaty, existential role that stretched him as an actor, and with a different script we may have gotten just that. It’s too bad the tone is far too often at war with itself.
What the film does do, however, is put a different spin on Van Damme’s typical role of the protector. Usually it’s his family (adopted or otherwise) that he’s fighting for. And while Eddie goes out of his way to help Johnny (Trejo) out of trouble, Eddie’s role as protector of this sleepy little town is basically just a happy coincidence. He’s happy to tear the gangs apart and loosen their grip on the area, so long as it allows him to reclaim his stolen motorcycle. Anything else (at the start, at least) is just gravy. It’s about as selfish a character as we’ve seen Van Damme play.
As far as the action goes, this is one of JCVD’s disappointing films that chooses to emphasize gunplay over fisticuffs, and most of it is fairly rote at best. Much of the action finishes as quickly as it starts, and the final confrontation with the “lead” (such as it is) villain moves along with Eddie mostly taking punishment. One would think that a bit of splashy action would be a nice complement to some of the more over-the-top moments elsewhere in the film, but alas.
This all comes across as sounding like a bit of a disappointment, but there’s enough fun to be had with Desert Heat thanks to its own weird vibe it worth one’s while. After all, it’s not every day that you get to watch Pat Morita cheerfully dumping bodies into a desert gorge.
Van Dammage Report Statistics for Desert Heat:
Number of splits: 0
Number of split kicks: 0
Reason for being European: None given.
Best line: “Praise the Lord!” — Mrs. Henry Howard (the innkeeper’s wife) as she spies on Eddie’s heated threesome with two blonde bimbos.
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Legionnaire | Knock Off | Double Team | Maximum Risk | The Quest | Sudden Death | Street Fighter | Timecop | Hard Target | Nowhere to Run | Universal Soldier | Double Impact |Death Warrant | Lionheart | Kickboxer | Cyborg | Bloodsport