What separates the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme from that of nearly any other action star of his day is that it’s clear Van Damme wants his movies to be about something more than just karate kicks and explosions. There may be no other film that best exemplifies this than Replicant, his second outing with Hong Kong director Ringo Lam.
The theme of duality and the concept of fractured, mirrored lives has surfaced before, but Double Impact and Maximum Risk never really explored those to the extent as Replicant. Double Impact, for instance, mostly uses Van Damme playing his own twin as a gimmick. Maximum Risk took in a more complex direction as Alain had to quickly immerse himself in a life that couldn’t be more different from his own. Replicant, however, strives for something more than the previous two “twin films.”
Van Damme is Edward Garrotte, a serial killer who targets women and sets them on fire, specifically mothers. For three years, Seattle Police detective Jake Riley (Michael Rooker) has been hot (pun very much intended) on Garrotte’s trail. But with Jake retiring from the force, it seems his hunt for the killer will go unfinished. Until, that is, Garrotte sends Jake a threatening phone call during his retirement party, promising the soon-t0-be-ex-gumshoe that he’ll go after Jake’s friends and family next.
More determined than ever to take down Garrotte, Jake finds himself recruited by a secret government agency that has managed to clone the killer. This replicant has the physique and capabilities of Garrotte at his peak, but the mind and understanding of a child. Oh, and they share a telepathic link as well, which the agency hopes to exploit as its main tool in tracking down and capturing Jake’s target.
This has all the makings of a fun buddy flick with the hardened, veteran cop having to deal with a “fish out of water,” as it were. And to his credit, Van Damme does a great job and is clearly enjoying the chance to playing completely against type (in both roles, but more on that in a bit). The problem here rests with some combination of the script, Ringo Lam’s direction and Rooker’s overall approach to the character. In short, Rooker’s a dick. Granted, a certain level of gruffness is expected given the character archetype and the situation in which Jake finds himself, but it’s just too much. Lam and Rooker could have overcome that with the right approach but neither seems capable of finding the right balance here and thus the character simply comes across as grating. Jake has something resembling a change of heart in the final third of the film, but it’s too little too late, in addition to simply feeling largely unmotivated.
What truly propels the film, though, is watching JCVD sink his teeth into the dual roles of Garrotte and the replicant (the clone is never properly given a name). Van Damme has always shown a desire to play characters that go beyond your typical action archetypes, but rarely has the material allowed for something truly introspective or insightful. Make no mistake, Replicant never really reaches for anything truly insightful or profound. It still knows it’s an action movie at heart. But that doesn’t stop Van Damme from looking to find some depth of humanity in his frightened and wide-eyed clone. The replicant is a character who understands little and fears much, and has something resembling an existential crisis when he’s finally confronted by his “brother” and is told what he truly is. There’s a weakness and vulnerability Van Damme brings out of the replicant that is rare among his roles thus far. And while Garrotte comes across as much more cartoonish than the replicant, it’s still a rare treat to see Van Damme in Villain Mode. Garrotte is a greasy, slimy bad guy with zero redeeming qualities, and JCVD relishes every dastardly second he has playing the heel. Often visibly so.
The result is a pair of performances that perhaps ultimately speaks to Van Damme’s own perception of himself at the time. By this point, he had already been through multiple divorces and relationship struggles, fought a massive cocaine habit and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It may lack depth, but Van Damme none the less used it as an opportunity to express and visualize the disparate halves struggling within himself.
With such an attempt at genuine depth, Replicant likely would have been a top tier Van Damme film had the action been more memorable or even plentiful. That it doesn’t is both a shock and a shame considering Lam and Van Damme’s previous collaboration, Maximum Risk, showcased some of the actor’s best moments of physicality. Likewise it feels such a shameful waste to have both a good guy and bad guy Van Damme in your film and have their inevitable showdown be ultimately underwhelming. Sure, it’s likely due to the restrictions of technology and budget that their fight was little more than the same few moves repeated, but it’s disappointing all the same. That there’s very little overall action comes as a bit of a surprise as well.
Still, while its deficiencies may be more glaring than is preferable, it’s never the less a fun bit of sci-fi and more than worth it simply for the joy of getting a double dose of the Muscles from Brussels.
Next up, Van Damme reunites with his longtime collaborator Sheldon Lettich for a journey to the Holy Land where he’ll co-star with none other than Charlton Heston for what looks to be one of Van Damme’s most ambitious films yet: The Order.
Van Dammage Report statistics for Replicant:
Number of splits: 3
Number of split kicks: 0
Reason for being European: None given
Best line: N/A
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
Desert Heat | 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