AKA: The Defender
Director: Sheldon Lettich
Writer: Sheldon Lettich, George Saunders
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Razaaq Adoti, Vivica A. Fox, Peter Bryant, Ron Bottitta, Viv Leacock, Adrian Holmes, Mark Griffin, Ron Selmour, Aaron Au, Dexter Bell
Running Time: 110 min.
By Kyle Warner
When a movie is a direct-to-DVD release, it comes with certain (usually lowered) expectations. We typically expect something low budget, often with subpar acting, and just enough of the right genre ingredients to appease that genre’s less discerning fans. The Hard Corps fits those expectations pretty well, but it does offer up a few things that set it apart. The film looks pretty good despite its low budget, it gives us some characterization with real depth, and the story (though far-fetched) does come to a satisfying conclusion… However, along the way The Hard Corps largely skimps on the action, likely letting down the primary audience who just showed up to watch JCVD kick some ass for a couple hours.
Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Sauvage, a soldier who’s recently come home from Iraq. Suffering from PTSD, he spends most of his time in a veteran’s hospital until an old war buddy comes to him with a job opportunity. Boxing champion Wayne Barclay (Razaaq Adoti) is in danger now that a rap music producer with a grudge has gotten out of jail. At the behest of Barclay’s sister (Vivica A. Fox), Barclay’s head of security hires Sauvage and his war buddy to protect the boxer while the angry rap producer comes gunning for his life. This is a film that attempts to mix the Iraq War with boxing and the dark side of the music industry. That’s a lot of competing worlds fighting for space in one movie.
It’s not long before Sauvage finds himself the leader of Barclay’s protection team. He then makes up his mind to fill the ranks with boxers, martial artists, and one of his other old war buddies. During all of this, Sauvage grows closer to Barclay’s sister, while Barclay develops suspicions about Sauvage’s wartime history and his time apparently spent in a psychiatric hospital following the war.
One thing that The Hard Corps succeeds at that other similar films do not is that it cares about character development. Van Damme’s Sauvage begins as a broken man who rediscovers his purpose as a man of action. The boxer Barclay learns to trust and put his life in other people’s hands. And Barclay’s sister Tamara gradually grows closer to Sauvage, beginning what looks like a romance despite Sauvage’s distant nature. Van Damme is good in the lead role, mixing drama with his usual action star moves. Though not as lively as some of Van Damme’s best work, his performance here is sure to satisfy fans. Razaaq Adoti (Second in Command) is okay as Barclay. The film has some dopey dialogue that would’ve been tough for the greatest of actors and Adoti is not in that class. Vivica A. Fox (Kill Bill) has never really been thought of as a top talent in the dramatic acting category, but she has a likable nature and she uses that here, providing the film with a bit of levity when the rest of the story is brooding and angry. Without her, I think the film would’ve drowned in testosterone.
The film’s major weakness is that it takes too long to get to the point, particularly in regards to just why this rap music convict has it in for Barclay. Played by Viv Leacock (I Spy), the bad guy Terrell Singletery is laughably over-the-top. He kills his own men, feeds people to dogs, and sends hitmen after Barclay almost daily and the cops never seem to care. Now, there are a few twists that I don’t wish to divulge, but suffice it to say that this whole thing is more than a bit far-fetched. I think the plot would’ve played better if it’d been more open with the audience. All the important things are withheld until the final act—Sauvage’s wartime history, the rapper villain’s history with Barclay, etc.—and I think we should’ve gotten some of the facts before then. At some point, especially in the case of the villain’s motivations, we need to know why there’s a beef between these guys if they expect us to remain invested in the story. They keep their secrets too long and I suspect some viewers may check out of the story before the end.
The film is directed by Sheldon Lettich, who has a history working with Van Damme, previously directing the star in The Order, Double Impact, and Lionheart. There’s a story to the reunion of Lettich and Van Damme that includes martial arts superstar Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson. In a 2012 interview with CraveOnline, Wilson claims he came up with the story for The Hard Corps with Sheldon Lettich. They agreed to make the movie and Wilson went off in search of a producer with the intention of shooting the film in LA. When he called Lettich sometime later, he found out that Lettich was already nearly finished filming the picture in Canada and had cast Jean-Claude Van Damme in the lead. I don’t know the other side of the story (there’s always another side to every story), but I figured it was an interesting production story worth mentioning here.
The Hard Corps does a lot of things right. The characters have depth, the action (though limited) is skillfully done, and the story reaches a satisfying conclusion. However, there are a few bumps on the road, including lame dialogue and a story that’s far-fetched and unnecessarily drawn-out. For fans of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Vivica A. Fox, I say give it a look. It’s an entertaining action drama that stands a notch above most DTV flicks. Still, keep expectations in check.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 5.5/10