As the star of Assassination Games, Jean-Claude Van Damme makes a lot of great decisions. As the executive producer, he appears to have made fewer. Still riding the career-resuscitating high of JCVD, Van Damme moves into a new echelon as a performer, one befitting his maturity and, perhaps unexpectedly, his legitimate acting talent—that said, he has yet to find a project deserving him. Expect small domestic returns from the theatrical run of this formulaic action thriller, but better international box office and a strong showing when it plays on VOD and home video.
Van Damme plays Brazil, a career hit man who only leaves the isolation of his palatial apartment for a mark. Scott Adkins (Undisputed III) plays Roland Flint, an assassin who retired young but emerges from hiding when he hears his longtime enemy Polo Yakur (Ivan Kaye) is making a rare public appearance. Amidst Flint's quest for revenge, Brazil is assigned to kill Yakur, leaving these triggermen at odds. When a corrupt politician and his payroll policemen help Yakur find the paid assassins, Brazil and Flint are forced to strike up a tenuous partnership to drive off the henchmen who'd kill them.
At 50-years-old, Van Damme has survived the meat grinder of Hollywood; it's almost impossible not to like him a little. Whether it was by accident or design, the through line of his early characters featured surprising amounts of vulnerability—admittedly more physical than emotional—but it continues to serve his iconic presence even now as he's (slightly) less formidable as an action star. Pairing Van Damme with the younger Scott Adams was a masterstroke: Adkins can do more of the physical stuff, while Van Damme showcases his understated but palpable acting abilities. (Van Damme gets to kick ass as well, but the restraint and simplicity of his fight choreography is appropriate to the character's maturity and the actor's age.)
Assassination Games effectively creates real stakes for Brazil and Flint, even if the circumstances leading to their peril are not always clearly defined. Like most basically b-level action movies, the plotting is too smart by half, creating a complicated but not altogether well-woven tapestry of partnerships, double-crosses and conspiracies. Despite his self-imposed, Léon-esque seclusion, Brazil takes a shine to his predictably statuesque neighbor, a brunette who suffers under her abusive boyfriend's thumb next door. The two of them develop a tender, platonic romance that is later compromised by Yakur's brutality. Similarly, Flint's comatose wife is a perhaps slightly overstated embodiment of that same peril, but putting her in danger during the film's climax heightens the intensity of the action.
That said, much of this inspired retread of action-movie clichés is so overstylized by Phil Parmet (cinematographer: The Roommate, Rob Zombie's Halloween) and his endless yellow and blue filters it's hard to get too invested, much less excited. It also doesn't help that Yakur sneers so much it seems like he forgot to tell his face it'd have to do some acting. But as a marginally theater-worthy action thriller, Assassination Games feels effective enough as a showcase for Van Damme's acting (rather than fighting) talents. That said, it doesn't surpass the performance he gave in JCVD, but if you're a fan of "the muscles from Brussels," it's worth watching if only because it suggests that whether he's drop-kicking enemies or delivering emotional dialogue, the best is yet to come.
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Valentin Teodosiu, Kevin Chapman, Scott Adkins, Ivan Kaye
Director: Ernie Barbarash
Screenwriter: Aaron Rahsaan Thomas
Producer: Justin Bursch, Brad Krevoy, Patrick Newall,
Running time: 100 min.
Release date: July 29 (limited)