Director: Peter Malota
Producer: Rafael Primorac
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Autumn Reeser, Peter Stormare, María Conchita Alonso, Daniel Bernhardt, Kris Van Damme, Mila Kaladjurdjevic, Paul Sampson, Kieran Gallagher, Peter Organ, Eddie Matthews
Running Time: 96 min.
By Kyle Warner
Stunt performers and fight coordinators are awesome individuals that go largely underappreciated by far too many film fans. I tend to think that may not be the case at City on Fire, but the point remains. These men and women know their stuff and they make our movies better with their often unsung contributions. However, when asked to step into the role of actor, writer, or director, sometimes these stunt specialists aren’t always up to task. Kill ’em All is the directorial debut of stuntman and fight choreographer Peter Malota. Malota is not well known to me, but he’s been involved with multiple Jean-Claude Van Damme movies over the years both behind the camera and in front of it, with collaborations such as The Quest, Nowhere to Run, and Double Impact. Those films, which featured JCVD in his prime, showcased good (sometimes great) action and stunt work, so I have no reason to doubt Malota’s abilities in his original field. But a good storyteller he is not.
Kill ’em All is a confusing, poorly paced action movie based around the mystery of a hospital bloodbath and the nurse who survived it. Nurse Suzanne (Autumn Reeser, The Arrangement) is called in for questioning by the FBI. Agent Holman (Peter Stormare, Fargo) doubts her story – for some reason? – and Suzanne decides to start from the beginning, retelling how her skeleton crew hospital took in multiple victims from an apparent assassination attempt all at once. One of them is Philip (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who is sporting a concussion and bleeding from a bad cut on his arm. Suzanne is tending to her patients when a Russian with a gun (Daniel Bernhardt) walks in, shoots the ceiling, and demands to know, “Where is he?!” No one knows who the hell he’s talking about. Nor should they. Dude just shows up with a gun, asks a vague question, and kills people who can’t give him a satisfactory answer. Thing is, I didn’t know who he meant either. I assumed he was talking about JCVD, because well, when a bad guy asks “Where is he?” in a JCVD movie, it’s natural to assume he’s talking about our favorite Muscles from Brussels. But nope. The angry Russian goes over to a dead guy on a gurney, pulls back the sheet, and reveals his recently slain brother. Ahhh. Okay then. Next thing you know, Van Damme draws his gun (because apparently patients who are the survivors of assassination attempts are not disarmed when put under medical care) and he goes out into the hall to deal with the angry Russian. These characters with only the vaguest of motivations shoot at each other in the hospital lobby and Suzanne sticks close to Van Damme because at least he’s not shooting at the ceiling and asking stupid questions. But wait, hold up. Peter Stormare’s FBI guy doesn’t believe this crap so we gotta jump back to the FBI interrogation room. Suzanne says that’s how it happened, the FBI asks why they should believe her, and the audience screams GET ON WITH IT ALREADY. But before we can jump back to the hospital, let’s now explore the backstories of the assassins who are here to kill Philip via a series of flashbacks, with each flashback given its own exact date that seems important at first but I guess not…?
It’s a mess. There is such a thing as trying to do too much. At the core of the story is an assault on a hospital where JCVD must fight off assassins, each of them known for their particular method of murder, while he works his way to the fifth floor where an injured diplomat sleeps in a hospital bed. If the movie wanted to be all about that, we might’ve had something here. But instead, the movie goes every which way. The constant jumping back to the FBI room can be tolerated, if only because Peter Stormare is easily the most entertaining thing in the movie. But the flashbacks are a tiresome bore. One goes as far back as 1981 to show JCVD’s Philip as a child (the kid is all of 12 years old. Which begs the question: is JCVD supposed to be 48 years old in this movie?). There are a few unexpected twists at the end—some of them truly bonkers—and I’d almost give it credit for deciding to go in that direction, if not for the fact that one such twist is so obviously lifted from a far superior film.
As Philip, Jean-Claude Van Damme is… elsewhere. He looks incredibly tired. An argument could be made that he’s too old for this sort of role but I’m not ready to go there because it’s clear that the movie would’ve sucked just as much with someone like Scott Adkins in the lead. Van Damme’s character barely speaks, but when he does speak the script gives him some real doozies. There’s this quiet moment during the hospital mayhem where Philip and Suzanne sit down in a break room to talk. He says to her, “You seem like the type of girl I would like to walk with you in the woods and listen to the birds. Plus, you’re intelligent.” And yes, in addition to being an outrageously bad line, it’s also (one must assume) a flubbed delivery. But who wants to read a line like that twice, right?
The lame dialogue extends to other sections of the film, too. Suzanne, a survivor of bloody mayhem, recounts her story like a drunk novelist crafting a poor first draft (hey, I’ve been there, too). A character that you’d think would be shaken by what she’d endured instead slips into flowery prose like she’s attempting to impress. When Stormare’s FBI agent yells at her to get to the point, I acknowledge that he’s a jerk, but damn if I’m not on his side anyway because this dialogue was meant for the garbage can.
Peter Stormare is the best part of the movie, though that’s admittedly not saying a whole lot. I think he must’ve just come off the set of John Wick Chapter 2 – it’s the same beard, same slicked back hair, it might even be the same suit. I don’t for one second buy him as an FBI Agent but he’s fun. And though he doesn’t get much to say, Daniel Bernhardt makes for an intimidating villain. It’s like a more dramatically invested take on his bodyguard character from John Wick, a heavy who disappeared into the background too much in that film but makes for a standout in Kill’ em All.
The action is average. The film’s wretched editing ruins the thrills. JCVD’s son Kris Van Damme shows off some nice kicks. I don’t believe he says a word in the film but he’s impressive in his fight with his father. Autumn Reeser’s Suzanne has a fight with a femme fatale assassin (model Mila Kaladjurdjevic) but the action is far too brief to hold a lasting memory. The best is saved for last when Van Damme and Bernhardt face off. Not sure if fans will consider it worth the wait but it is a fine fight and both performers pull off a few good moves.
The film is obviously working on a small budget. I don’t hold that against it, but nor do I think that’s reason enough to forgive its many shortcomings. It’s an above average cast for a direct-to-DVD feature but they’re largely wasted on a horrible script and awful pacing. Waste of a cool title.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 3/10