Review: ‘Enemies Closer’ Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme

Review: 'Enemies Closer' Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme

Why are
action movies ashamed to be action movies? It’s as if one day, Hollywood
figured they could teach actors how to kick better than they could teach
martial artists how to act, turning a legion of would-be dramatic leading men
into shit-kickers. The era of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis is over,
replaced by the legion of Harry Potters and Percy Jacksons who can stand still
as computer generated effects fly from their hands, or the Jason Bournes who
can flail and wave their arms around as the camera shakes to create the
illusion of violence. In that spirit, there is this weekend’s “Enemies Closer,”
which twenty years ago would have starred Jean-Claude Van Damme. The good news
is, he’s still in it. The bad news: the movie stars Tom Everett Scott.

“Enemies
Closer” takes place on King’s Island, a lonely Canadian resort where Everett
Scott’s Henry is the park ranger. He’s only one of two inhabitants on the
entire isle, though that doesn’t stop Henry from enforcing justice, including
forcing vacationers to surrender their booze in accordance with island rules.
When a girl flirts with him, he remains uncertain as to how he should return
volley. He’s been away from society too long, and while it soon becomes clear
Henry is hiding from something, it mostly comes across that he does not
understand basic human behavior. When she suggests dinner, he reacts as if she’s
explained the concept of eating to him.

A light shines
on Henry’s origins when he’s taken at gunpoint by Clay (Orlando Jones). The
interloper wants revenge for the death of his own brother, thanks to faulty
orders given by the SEALS Henry headed in combat long ago. The film’s clearly
got an interest in order, justice, fairness and authority figures, since Henry
acknowledges he made a mistake and was unfit for leadership. Also, because the
film’s meal ticket enters the film wearing a fake Canadian Mountie outfit,
projecting false authority.

That would
be Mr. Van Damme himself as Xander. JCVD struts into the movie with spiky blond
highlights and a graceful physicality that suggests a dancer’s gait, not the
toughie he’s always battled onscreen. He leads a gang to King’s Island to
procure a massive shipment of drugs left underwater, but first they’ll have to
evacuate the island by evacuating everyone out of their own bodies. Van Damme’s
Xander seems to really enjoy that part of the job.

Likely
because of Mr. Van Damme’s commitments (he’s no longer a “star,” but he remains
prolific in the direct-to-DVD world), there’s the sense that you’re watching
two totally unrelated movies, and that the actors are all on completely
different sets. The first finds the conflict between Henry and Clay escalating
as Clay not only gives a longwinded explanation for his need for revenge but
also stalls when it is time to pull the trigger. The interplay between Scott
and Jones is deadly dull, and neither character has much of a compelling
backstory for these actors to create. Ultimately, these two are going to have
to band together if they want to survive the oncoming Van Dammage.

The second,
and more rewarding film, finds Xander and his goons locking down the island. It’s
pretty basic: there isn’t much that needs to be set up, but it’s clear that
director Peter Hyams has a greater investment in this subplot than he does the
central conflict between Henry and Clay. Xander himself is a hoot: he’s a vegan
who hates guns because they’re not “green,” and Van Damme gets a chance to chew
into some hilarious monologues about ducks and other not-at-all-relevant topics.
Every time the movie switches to the dramatic conflict of the opposing subplot,
you groan. Van Damme’s an arresting presence in his old age: his chest is
puffed out as if to carry a haggard body, and his eyes have the seen-it-all boredom
that comes from beating up too many people. His performance is a wonder,
showcasing a man who has never found his physical equal, and how amuses himself
by telling stories that ultimately mock opponents. One scene has him
threatening Henry while holding a weapon to a hostage’s neck, while also calmly
smiling and sipping coffee. Combined with his pointy hair, he’s less sadistic
and more mischievous. He may have not had many opportunities to do so, but
among his generation, no other action star could wink at the audience quite as
well.

Hyams seems
to have borrowed a few tools from his son John’s repertoire. John Hyams last
essayed Van Damme’s haunted Kurtz-alike in the superb “Universal Soldier: Day
Of Reckoning
,” and clearly Van Damme feels comfortable with both directors
(Peter worked as the DP for John’s “Universal Soldier: Regeneration”). The
emphasis on furious fight choreography from John’s films remains here, and
characters frequently, and clearly, toss each other into glass, countertops and
trees. Most of the hand-to-hand is quite good, hampered only by the fact that
none of the characters are meant to be martial artists. Given that the set-ups
are fairly pedestrian, there’s nothing altogether inventive about the
fisticuffs either, just a generic workmanlike approach, but the physical
performers and generously hands-off editing allow for an emphasis on physical
damage and bodies in motion. Only a late film scuffle in a tree carries the
charge of some of Van Damme’s earlier, more acrobatic work.

Of course,
sequences like that only make one question why this film is so ashamed to be an
action picture. Mr. Everett Scott’s stunt double appears to be more than game
for getting beaten, bruised, and displaying spectacular flips. But given the
actor’s limited charisma (his default dramatic expression is “verge of tears”),
why not just hire the stunt double instead and axe the tortured backstory? The
studios want a raft of Tobey Maguires and Andrew Garfields to unleash as action
heroes, so these fringe action stars need to support each other. With Everett
Scott, the film’s only diverting, mostly forgettable. But with Scott Adkins,
Michael Jai White, or any number of current action performers, it could have
been great. [C]

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