Can three scenes sustain an entire film? Wake of Death is a solid argument that they cannot.
There is little within Wake of Death that feels essential. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s detour into the realm of direct-to-video releases was always destined to deliver a number of underwhelming films, but this (apparently tumultuous) film is one that particularly struggles to find its own voice.
Van Damme plays Ben Archer, a weary and worn gangster who’s ready to leave behind his life of violence to go straight and spend more time with his son and INS social worker wife, Cynthia (Lisa King). Of course, no such peaceful life is afforded as his wife is soon gunned down by a Chinese Triad boss, Sun Quan (Simon Yam). Turns out Ben’s wife was doing her best to protect Sun Quan’s young daughter who managed to escape to America after witnessing Quan murder her mother. Naturally, Ben has no choice but to try and exact revenge as best he can.
What ensues is one of the darkest films Van Damme has yet starred in, both literally and figuratively. There are only a handful of scenes that take place during daylight hours, the rest of the film seems perpetually set between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. It serves only to heighten the already oppressive, depressing and, frankly, hostile tone at play. Avenging one’s family is JCVD’s stock in trade, but the path to doing so has never felt so particularly bleak or even downright nasty. More specifically, there’s an interrogation scene involving a power drill that’s harrowing and unlike anything really seen before in one of the man’s films.
Much of this must be put on the shoulders of Philippe Martinez. If internet scuttlebutt is to be believed, this was to be Van Damme’s fourth collaboration with Hong Kong director Ringo Lam. Circumstances being whatever they were, Lam departed the picture within two weeks of shooting. Directing duties changed hands twice again, finally landing with Philippe Martinez.
A tumultuous start like that is never beneficial for a film, but surprisingly Wake of Death never feels particularly broken. It’s coherent, at least, and never is there a stretch where it feels like crucial content is somehow missing. Rather, Martinez’s film is simply tedious. It clocks in at a mere 91 minutes, yet is interminable to the point where I was certain it dragged over the two-hour line. Maybe it was due to the fact that more than half the film was shot at night, making the progression of time ambiguous at best, and lending a sense of homogeneity at worst to the proceedings at large. Maybe it was the lack of an interesting or engaging villain who never even comes face to face with our ostensible hero until the film’s final minutes. It certainly wasn’t helped by a dearth of interesting action. Plenty of bullets fly, some punches exchanged, and cars are chased but by and large this contains some of the least stimulating action yet captured in a Van Damme film.
So what of those three scenes? The aforementioned torture scene isn’t the most brutal interrogation you’ve likely witnessed, but it’s jarring none the less for a JCVD vehicle. Shocking audiences typically isn’t a tactic employed in his movies so the liberal use of a power drill on a certain character as the clock ticks feels all the more impactful. It’s memorable, which is more than one can say for the majority of the film.
The second on this list is a motorcycle chase that eventually goes through a shopping mall. Why a shopping mall? Your guess is as good as any. There’s no story connection, no thematic callback. Martinez thought it would be cool to have two guys roar motorcycles through a mostly empty indoor shopping mall and thus, it was filmed. Still, pointless though it may be, the chase at least has a bit of a pulse, and it’s always a kick to see vehicular action take place in a place that was clearly never designed for such spectacle. This ain’t the Blues Brothers chase but in a film otherwise crying out for something resembling fun, this will suffice.
The true standout here, however, is the one moment that at least nearly redeems Van Damme’s participation in this otherwise rote exercise in grim revenge. It’s not a splitkick or a pithy one-liner. It’s a brief bit of acting. Ben has finally come home after witnessing the death of his wife. Naturally he’s a wreck, desperate to find some way to deal with his grief, and Van Damme sells it well. It sticks out in part because it feels like one of the few truly honest moments in the film, but also because it was (especially up until this point in his career) a rare cinematic exhibit of raw emotion for the man.
Everything else? Forgettable to the point of frustration. (In part because this film required three viewings simply so I could remember enough of it to write about, though maybe I shouldn’t wait so long to write after viewing.) Wake of Death is a requirement only for Van Damme completionists.
Van Dammage Report statistics for Wake of Death:
Number of splits: 0
Number of split kicks: 0
Reason for being European: None given
Best line: N/A
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
In Hell | Derailed | The Order | Replicant | 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