Director: Ernie Barbarash
Writer: Aaron Rahsaan Thomas
Producer: Brad Krevoy, Patrick Newall, Justin Bursch
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Scott Adkins, Kevin Chapman, Ivan Kaye, Valentin Teodosiu, Alin Panc, Serban Celea, Michael Higgs, Kristopher Van Varenberg, Marija Karan, Bianca Van Varenberg, Andrew French, Attila Árpa
Running Time: 95 min.
For many Jean Claude Van Damme fans in the United States, the limited release of “Assassination Games” this summer means the first chance to see their hero on the big screen in over a decade. Pairing the Muscles From Brussels with rising star Scott Adkins (“Undisputed III: Redemption”) seemed like a no-brainer recipe for success. All these two guys had to do was bring the action and fans would go home happy. Unfortunately, “Assassination Games” fails to meet even those modest expectations.
Although Van Damme and Adkins’ previous collaboration, 2008’s “The Shepherd,” didn’t exactly set the world on fire, at least it had some decent fight scenes. It’s now clear that the quality of that film was due to director Isaac Florentine, an “auteur” of direct-to-DVD action with movies like the “Undisputed” sequels and “U.S. Seals 2” under his belt. Without his deft touch, the Van Damme/Adkins reunion of “Assassination Games” flounders. Instead we’re in the hands of Ernie Barbarash, director of “Cube Zero.” For some reason he shot the film in a sepia tone – or, more likely, had the film color-coded this way via computer in post-production – that makes it look like you’re viewing the entire movie through a waterfall of urine. This is how we have to see Van Damme return to the big screen?
Granted, no one would care how this movie looked if it at least showed Van Damme kicking ass. Alas, “Assassination Games” is more a low-budget European thriller than it is an action movie. The set-up is firmly simple: Van Damme plays one of the best assassins in the business while Adkins is a retired hitman hiding out with some money stolen from corrupt Interpol agents who want him dead. When they’re both given the same contract – Adkins is after the guy because he put his wife in a coma – the two killers butt heads and ultimately realize they’re better off teaming up. While this premise had the potential to deliver plenty of action and thrills, there’s barely any action to be had in “Assassination Games.”
Perhaps the feeling of disappointment here comes from the fact that we’re witnessing a “pretty good” direct-to-video movie on the big screen; one’s expectations are a bit higher when you add a premium ticket price. You have to wonder just how this movie secured a theatrical release, as limited as it may be, since it’s purely a cloak-and-dagger movie and not the kind of martial arts spectacular that Van Damme made his bread ‘n butter in the 90’s (whoever thought we’d be nostalgic for “Time Cop”?). Director Ernie Barbarash keeps the focus on backroom dealings and double-crosses rather than any fisticuffs. Van Damme doesn’t even crack a smile, let alone throw a kick.
Sure, we’re used to Van Damme playing more downtrodden, melancholy souls ever since “Maximum Risk” but this is a movie in search of a pulse. Scott Adkins does his best – he’s got a handsome face and killer moves so there’s no reason he shouldn’t be a big star – but his characters’ rage is almost completely internalized. “Assassination Games” desperately needed its characters’ inner conflict to boil over and actually affect what was happening onscreen. Instead, this movie sulks through the shadows to an ultimately limp conclusion.
That’s the big problem with “Assassination Games.” Every time the plot seems to tease at escalating the conflict, it just plods along to the next scene and maintains the status quo. The bad guys are constantly talking about calling in reinforcements or putting the hurt on Vam Damme and Adkins, and yet it never manifests. When Van Damme and Adkins sneak up to the house with all the bad guys inside, one of them makes a comment like “There’s at least two guards out front. We’ll have to draw them out.” Excuse me? TWO guards?! Hell no – I’ve seen Chow Yun Fat and Andy Lau creep up on a villain’s mansion and blow it to hell with rocket launchers and grenades in 1987’s “Tragic Hero.” I’ve seen the first two “A Better Tomorrow” movies. You need to do a lot more to impress me with the finale of your film, especially when Van Damme and Scott Adkins are two of the toughest guys in show business. Scott Adkins could take out two guards in his friggin’ sleep.
Look, I know it’s hard to make a good movie. These days most of our 80’s action heroes are forced to shoot their flicks on a low-budget in economically challenged Eastern European countries. The sepia tone is most likely an attempt to try and make “Assassination Games” look visually interesting despite a lack of funds. I’ve read Donnie Yen say that you can give him all the money in the world and if he doesn’t have enough time, he’s not going to be able to deliver a good fight scene. I’m sure the filmmakers on “Assassination Games” were pressed for both time and money. It’s just the reality. But I’m looking in the credits and I see Van Damme has a stylist, a hair dresser, a costume dresser…I mean, shit, guys. I paid good money for a ticket – could you at least deliver one knock-out, drag-out fight scene that makes my jaw hit the floor? Could you at least try? Please?
Scott Adkins is a beast. We’ve seen this guy deliver kicks that would send my out-of-shape ass to the moon in movies like “Undisputed II” & “III.” The fight scene between him and Vladik Jacukevicius in “Special Forces” is one of the top ten best fight scenes since the heyday of Hong Kong cinema. And yet there’s not one moment in “Assassination Games” that comes close to unleashing Adkins’ true potential. The fact that he’s even in this movie and so under-utilized is like buying a submachine gun to shoot empty bottles in your backyard – a waste of pure firepower.
I’m no hater. I love Van Damme. Hell, he blew me away in “Universal Soldier: Regeneration” and that was just two years ago. That movie had so much action and bloodshed, I needed a cold shower afterwards. The thing is, movies like “Regeneration” and even Van Damme’s “Wake of Death” in 2004 have steadily raised the bar for low-budget action movies. They prove you can have great fight scenes with more fluid camera work and editing than most Hollywood flicks. “Assassination Games” takes too many steps back, back to the days when Steven Seagal was pumping out direct-to-video flicks where he mumbled his way through Prague in the name of political intrigue. Considering that Scott Adkins has probably done 200 push-ups by the time Seagal has had his first Snickers bar of the day, that is just a shame.
Van Damme, we love you – but the fans deserve more.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 5.5/10