Jean-Claude Van Damme looks heavy in his new star vehicle The Last Mercenary—less in terms of added pounds than of heightened density, as if he’d sink in water. Hitting the big 6-0 last year may have slowed the heretofore prolific action star down a touch, this being his first feature credit in a few years, and his age is starting to show—not in the craggy lines criss-crossing his face or bags deep-setting his eyes, which have always been there, but in blunter strikes and movements than usual. He’s traded a measure of agility for brute force, the lack of trademark splits compensated for with harder hits. A single punch to the face from world-renowned secret agent Richard “The Mist” Brumére leaves one character hideously deformed, his lip swollen to the shape, size, and texture of a dried tropical fruit. When our hero leans on a nightclub’s illuminated bar during an expository chat, it sags beneath his elbow.
Literal weight is the only kind offered by this slight film, another disposable Euro import upholding Netflix’s reluctant reputation as a digital direct-to-video bin. A comic streak uncommon in Van Damme’s generally all-business filmography might lend this faceless entry an identity of its own, if only director David Charhon had a more developed sense of humor. To quote Amy Poehler in Southland Tales, just because it’s loud doesn’t mean it’s funny—a criticism of lazy improv applicable to the shrillness adopted here as a default tone. Fans of Van Damme (fan Dammes, as we’re known) will appreciate the many costumes his master of disguise whips up and the collection of increasingly goofy wigs that go with them. Less delectable: the constant cross-eyed shrieking, the nut shots, the cracks about “taking it up the ass,” the pantomimed blowjob, and the presumed inherent hilarity of men in Speedos or tighty-whities.
The “professional coming out of retirement for one last job” archetype has always been a staple of the Van Damme repertoire, but he’s only just reached the point of his own life at which the grizzle looks appropriate on him. Coaxed out of hiding by a mix-up involving the son (Samir Decazza) he’s never known and a Scarface-obsessed kingpin (Nassim Lyes) stealing the boy’s identity, Brumére must protect his progeny with the help of two savvy weed dealers (Assa Sylla and the comedian Djimo) and a doofus government functionary (Alban Ivanov) while scrambling to secure the all-important mystery object codenamed Big Mac, as in “guffin.” This tired premise strives to save face with various nods to a parodic sensibility never fully embraced; while the catchphrase “killing kills” gets the laugh it aims for, an actual wink to the camera confirming we’re all in on jokes impossible to miss does not.
As the 2008 meta-thriller JCVD demonstrated by casting the actor as a hard-luck version of himself, Van Damme’s persona is ripe for dissection and lampooning, but that requires greater directorial finesse than Charhon possesses. With the exception of one solid sight gag—a description of Brumére’s features to a police sketch artist results in an approximate portrait of Homer Simpson—there’s nothing here that couldn’t be seamlessly grafted onto any other ass-kicker of his caliber. A complacent, yawn-generating broadness weakens every aspect of the film, from a chase scene soundtracked by “One Way Or Another” to the father-son stuff played painfully straight for a compulsory pathos. The quality of the fight sequences, the main criterion by which we judge a Van Damme picture, tops out at competency; only a showdown incorporating a whipped wet towel recalls the inventive creativity of his strongest work.
Near the climax, the Muscles from Brussels takes note of a Bloodsport poster conspicuously hanging in the villain’s home theater. Faced with the image of his younger self, he chuckles and muses, “That’s a real man.” For anyone else, this would be a pathetic moment, an effort to laugh off having grown old and washed-up that only serves to throw that fact into sharper relief. For Van Damme, however, the indignity slides right off his muscular back. Maybe it’s because even his better projects have historically had a low-rent quality to them, or because he has never evinced even a hint of vanity on screen, but his charms are immune to the obnoxiousness all around him. While Charhon puffs and wheezes in his attempts at diversion, he can’t keep up with the natural charisma of his leading man. Van Damme may look like his body’s slowly ossifying into rock, but the guy still does it all without breaking a sweat.