Assassination Games

The final days of the 20th century ushered in many things, and ushered out quite a few as well. After years of dedicated service, the beefed-up action stars of the 80s and 90s were quietly shown the door. This was a horrible turn of events for Olivier Gruner, a man who had made a living throughout the 90s as the direct-to-video version of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Now that Jean-Claude Van Damme was the direct-to-video version of Jean-Claude Van Damme, what was poor Olivier Gruner to do? As for Van Damme, his DTV output would eventually lead the former muscles from Brussels to make JCVD, a self-deprecating (and to a degree, self-flagellating) arthouse hit that afforded Van Damme the chance to skewer and wax poetic about his crumbling career while at the same time actually rebuilding it to some degree. With the exception of Expendables 2, Van Damme wasn’t going to find his way back onto the big screen, but the quality of his direct to video output enjoyed a substantial leap forward in terms of quality.

Assassination Games is a pre-Expendables pairing of Van Damme and his Expendables henchman, Scott Adkins (Ninja, Undisputed 3), as two hitmen who find themselves gunning for the same target. For Van Damme’s Vincent Brazil, the hit is strictly business. For Adkins’ Roland Flint, however, the hit is part of a conspiracy that left his wife in a coma and his career in tatters. Wanting to get revenge on Flint for being a good guy, a cabal of corrupt Interpol agents decide to arrange the release from prison of the man responsible for the gang rape of Flint’s wife, knowing that having that man on the street will bring Flint out of hiding and make him a target. Brazil, meanwhile, just gets hired to kill the same man, an Eastern European mobster named Polo (Ivan Kaye, Layer Cake, EastEnders). The two hitman inadvertently foul up one another’s shots, leaving Polo’s brother dead. Now the two assassins both find themselves in the cross-hairs of dirty Interpol agents and Polo’s thugs. The only solution: an uneasy alliance and the occasional trading of one-liners.

Assassination Games comes across like one of Luc Besson’s Europafilm productions sucked of all the humor and over-the-top goofiness that helps those films win over audiences (myself included). As with Besson movies, the plot here is rote and full of cliche (screenwriter Aaron Rahsaan Thomas has very little experience, most of it coming from television), including one of my personal favorites: the “he’s good” speech the villain gives about the hero. But Besson and his army know not only how to expertly execute formula; they also know how to spice it up with wit and just the right level of outrageousness. Assassination Games has no such sense of the absurd. It handles itself with dour seriousness that drains the film of some much-needed energy in the same way that it has been drained of color. Assassination Games never, for me, descends to the level of “plodding,” but it does lumber under the weight of its own unrelenting gravitas.

Since going DTV, Van Damme has acted as producer on a number of his own films, and usually that means he gives a pretty spirited performance. For the record, I do not consider Van Damme a bad actor. Like many alumni of that class of action hero, he is a limited actor, but within those limits he has a lot of charisma and can deliver a pretty good performance. Assassination Games isn’t at first glance one of his better efforts. He seems tired and a bit listless. But the longer I watched, the more I appreciated his performance, even if it isn’t perfect. Vincent Brazil is supposed to be a combination of stoic “all business” killer and world-weary man searching for meaning. Although it’s not a banner performance, I think Van Damme does well, especially in the subplot in which he becomes the reluctant wing under which an abused neighbor-prostitute (Serbian actress Marija Karan, The Rite) seeks protection from an abusive pimp. Like everything else in the movie, the subplot is pretty generic, complete with the woman being less a character and more a symbol of redemption for Van Damme’s Vincent Brazil. But she’s good, and his lined, older face contributes a lot to adding a layer to Van Damme’s performance that might not otherwise be there.

Brazil is a more difficult protagonist than Scott Adkins’ Flint. Where as Flint is easy to sympathize with, Brazil remains largely unsympathetic until a number of people have paid dearly for his commitment to not getting emotionally involved or for his tendency to make bad decisions when calling what he thinks is a bluff. By film’s finale, he has taken the first steps toward evolving into a more “human” human being, uncomfortable and unfamiliar with it as he may be, but it’s hard to forget the bodies littering his journey to not being such an unfeeling prick. In both the cases of Flint’s wife and Brazil’s neighbor, we’re very much in heroic bloodshed “woman as symbol” territory. One is in a coma, so I don’t expect much action from her, but the need for women to suffer (or die) so that a male character might find his motivation or redemption is a trope with which I’m increasingly uncomfortable. Surely it’s time we thought up other ways for anti-heroes to get in touch with their feelings.

His unwilling ally, Scott Adkins, has emerged as a real bright spot in the world of DTV action, cutting his teeth in some of the better MMA-related films like the Undisputed series and the delirious, ridiculously entertaining Ninja. I would say Adkins is a guy who deserves a higher profile career, and while that’s true, I enjoy having him show up in the DTV world so much that I also selfishly want him to stick around at that level. He has pretty thin material with which to work in this movie, but he does well with it and gets to play dramatic scenes as well as action. I’d team him up in a series with Michael Jai White and Gary Daniels and be very happy about it. Anyway, there is some chemistry between Adkins and Van Damme, but they never quite gel as a team — which I guess is in keeping with the plot, actually.

The supporting cast is typically workmanlike in their professionalism. No one stands out, but everyone turns in a solid performance as is expected from a largely British supporting cast. I like Marija Karan and would love to see her in more action films. Hell, if I’m going to fictionally team up Adkins, White, and Daniels, then I might as well to the same with Karan, Gina Carano, and Anastasiya Zavorotnyuk (I’d say Olga Kurylenko, but she seems pretty gainfully employed if still underused). It’s a bit of a shame Karan has so little to do in this movie, but when she’s on-screen, she does an admirable job. I also like Andrew French (Exorcist: The Beginning) as Vincent Brazil’s handler. It’s another small and generic role, slightly more complex than is usual for “the guy who sits in a nice office and gives out jobs,” but he’s able in it and deserves a bigger role in something.

Action-wise, once again we get competent but not outstanding. Despite Van Damme and Adkins both being martial arts stars, most of the action here is gunplay. There’s some kicks and fisticuffs, but they are fewer and farther between than the shooting Fine with me. Van Damme more than many other aging action stars, is willing to acknowledge his age and play to the fact that he’s going to be slower and less fit than the rippling thugs standing around him. Thus, no worries about all the gunplay. Director Ernie Barbarash has little of note to his name, unless you count the much despised Cube: Zero as notable. His direction here is largely unobtrusive, which I like, and he handles action acceptably. What is less acceptable is his pointless decision to indulge in the modern annoyance of using digital color alteration to screw with the look of the film. For no thematic or stylistic reason at all, he’d decided this film should be yellowed and washed out to the point of almost being a black and white film. I know this can be used as shorthand for communicated a variety of moods, but here it contributes nothing other than making the film look dreary and perhaps adding a bit of tedium.

Assassination Games isn’t the pinnacle of Van Damme’s DTV career (a career I admittedly enjoy quite a bit). It’s too serious for you to willingly overlook the cliche. But it’s also competent in most regards (except that silly yellow tinting) and is an example of Van Damme trying to take a familiar role for himself in particular and action films in general and, if not do something new with it, at least do a good job with it. And I think he does. Nothing mind blowing, but nothing mind numbing. I wanted a little more from a movie teaming up Van Damme and Scott Adkins, but what I got kept me entertained and relatively satisfied. Van Damme’s action scenes are a they should be, but I would have liked for the screenplay to provide the younger, abler Adkins a chance to cut loose a little more.

What really pushes Assassination Games into my good graces is the fact that Van Damme is still trying, perhaps even harder than when he was at the top of the game, to make quality films. They may not work for you, but there’s nothing lazy in his efforts. And I appreciate that, especially when its measured against the endless don’t-give-a-shit movies being made by Steven Seagal. Van Damme seems to care, and that translates into a much higher quality of film. Assassination Games is hampered by a few missteps, but nothing that prevents it from being, ultimately, an entertaining film.

Release Year: 2011 | Country: United States | Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Scott Adkins, Ivan Kaye, Valentin Teodosiu, Alin Panc, Kevin Chapman, Serban Celea, Michael Higgs, Kristopher Van Varenberg, Marija Karan, Bianca Van Varenberg, Andrew French, Attila Arpa, Marioara Sterian, George Remes | Screenplay: Aaron Rahsaan Thomas | Director: Ernie Barbarash | Cinematography: Phil Parmet | Music: Neal Acree