Like so many of his films in the wake of Universal Soldier: The Return, Until Death is a frustrating work that’s chock full of good ideas that never get exploited to their full potential. And yet, it’s not until the film’s final frames that it becomes clear this is an essential film in a series that serves to illuminate the mind of a man struggling with his life, his conscience and his family.
Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Anthony Stowe, a dirty narcotics detective with the New Orleans Police Department. He regularly gets a piece on the side, whether it’s the cute bartender or a random hooker, yet still manages to be angry when he finds out his wife is pregnant with another man’s child. He’s addicted to heroine, but he’ll still rat out a fellow cop one month from retirement when he asks Stowe to make some evidence against a family member disappear (thus depriving said cop of his pension). His partner gets killed in action when a planned bust against local crime boss Gabriel Callaghan (Steven Rea) goes sideways, and it’s not long before Callaghan places a hit on Stowe, leaving him in a coma for months.
As the life and career of Anthony Stowe couldn’t possibly get any lower, you get the impression his wife and peers would mostly prefer he remain in a catatonic state. And yet emerge from it he does. The bullet that just barely missed his brain must have jump-started his empathy receptors, however, because he wakes up a changed man, ready to set right the disaster of a life he nearly left behind. He kicks the smack, does his damnedest to mend his broken marital relationship and even gives half of his insurance money to the cop whose pension he helped revoke. All before finally taking on Callaghan.
Granted, that all sounds good, and indeed it would make for a fairly compelling story of redemption and contrition were its priorities in the right place. Weirdly, we spend more than an hour of the film focused solely on Anthony Stowe’s wretched character. Under the right circumstances this would be fine. Build up the fall so the climb to redemption is that much more satisfying and meaningful. But Until Death runs a meager 101 minutes, so a meager 40 minutes (at best) is all we have to let Stowe recover, realize the error of his ways, find ways to right his wrongs AND take down the big bad. Couple that with bland action (Replicant may have been the last time Van Damme threw a proper roundhouse kick in these DTV movies) and you have yet another lackluster flick that mostly squanders whatever rich potential could be found in a premise with promise.
Then the film’s final moments unfold and suddenly a broader picture slowly clicks into place. Family has long been the connective thematic tissue throughout Van Damme’s filmography, but it’s especially present in this stretch of movies between 2000 and 2007. Most of them reflections of a man dealing with the loss of family and his inability to do anything other than stand by as they’re stripped from him. Or, in the case of Replicant, the portrait of a man at war with himself. However, the defining difference between Until Death and most of the films is that Van Damme’s character is usually the victim of circumstances. Whatever is taken from him is not the result of his own actions or choices. Until Death, however, depicts a man ruined by his own worst impulses. There’s no one to blame in this film for Anthony Stowe’s troubles save Stowe himself. We are watching a man come to grips with who he is, what he’s done and finally admit he has to make things right in whatever way he can. Through this point off-camera, Van Damme has struggled through cocaine addiction, divorces, affairs, and an otherwise turbulent personal life. And while there’s nothing truly indicating he would pass off his problems onto someone or something else, Until Death feels like Van Damme finally taking responsibility for himself and his choices.
His turn as Stowe provides as somber a performance as we’ve seen from him thus far. Stowe’s pre-comatose persona is slimy, greasy (literally) and sweaty. He cares for no one — not even himself — and Van Damme seems eager to let Stowe simmer in his own depravity. “Relish” is the wrong word here, but if you can imagine someone enjoying playing the role of a crooked, selfish reprobate in a manner that feels personally reflective, then that’s what’s going on here. He’s likewise equally invested in the reformed side of Stowe as well, though again the script barely allows us (and Van Damme) the chance to really dig into the redemptive side of things, at least not to the depth that this deserves. Still, it feels like a notably introspective performance all things considered.
Until Death could have been good. Maybe even great. Scuttlebutt indicates that Ringo Lam was considering taking on this film, and the thought of such only deepens the disappointment here.
Van Dammage Report Statistics for Until Death:
Number of splits: 0
Number of split kicks: 0
Reason for being European: It’s set in New Orleans, and Stowe is a native of the city. Nothing is specified, but one safely assumes some sort of French heritage as such.
Best line: N/A
Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
The Hard Corps | Second in Command | Wake of Death | 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