Director: Simon Fellows
Writer: Dan Harris, James Portolese
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Gary Beadle, Stephen Rea, Mark Dymond, Selina Giles, Rachel O’Meara, William Ash, Stephen Lord, C. Gerod Harris, Wes Robinson
Running Time: 101 min.
By Kyle Warner
In the decade since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the American film industry has found a second home in the city. After (and in some cases before) cleanup crews made the city pristine again, new tax credits brought film crews to New Orleans in droves. While some films or TV shows made a point to display what the city had been through (Déjà Vu, Treme, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), more often the Big Easy was just an interesting backdrop. Despite taking place in New Orleans only a year after the storm, sadly 2007’s Until Death finds itself in the latter category.
Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Anthony Stowe, the least popular cop in New Orleans. He’s an alcoholic, he’s a drug addict, he’s neglecting his wife, and he’s angering his colleagues at the station. The fact that he’s a dedicated cop barely seems to matter when everything else about him says that he’s an asshole. This is, I think, one of Van Damme’s best performances. In the role of Stowe, Van Damme doesn’t rely on high kicks to wow the audience. Instead, he dives into the nitty-gritty emotional center of an unlikable, self-loathing character, with often very believable results.
With the New Orleans setting and the criminal cop, it’s fair to draw some interesting comparisons to Werner Herzog’s 2009 film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which gave us Nicolas Cage’s best performance of the last decade or more. Van Damme, like Cage, was brave enough to appear ugly inside and out for the lead role. However, director Simon Fellows (Second in Command) is no Werner Herzog, and the second half of Until Death takes us on a hard right as the character begins his search for redemption, something Cage’s Lieutenant only seemed to happen upon largely by accident.
Anthony Stowe’s nemesis is the gangster Gabriel Callaghan (Stephen Rea), who’s using police corruption and excessive violence to help spread his narcotics throughout the city. A stakeout goes wrong, resulting in two cops getting killed and Callaghan disappearing into the city. While Stowe is blamed for the cop’s deaths, he goes off in hunt of Callaghan alone, even though he’s pumped so full of drugs and booze that he shouldn’t even be standing. Stowe is led into an ambush and one of Callaghan’s goons puts a bullet through his head… but, against all odds, Stowe survives.
While the first half of Until Death is a dark character study of a deeply flawed man in a position of power, the second half is more well-meaning. Stowe goes into a coma and awakens a new man. Now gifted with a second chance at life, Stowe hopes to redeem himself and set things right.
If the whole plot sounds familiar to you, then you’re one step ahead of me. It’s strongly suggested that this is an uncredited remake of Johnnie To’s 1995 film Loving You, starring Lau Ching Wan as the depraved cop who gets shot in the head and comes out of his coma a changed man. I’ve never seen Loving You but everything I’ve read on the film sounds just like Until Death.
Until Death’s script is credited to screenwriters Dan Harris (X2: X-Men United) and James Portolese (It’s Alive). While there’s some awkward dialogue, I feel like the film’s key issues stem from poor direction and a lost looking supporting cast. Director Simon Fellows apparently lacked the confidence to leave his film alone, mixing in useless slow-motion shots at odd times and splicing noise and hidden imagery between scene transitions. The stumbling attempts at style look cheap. The attention to detail is also lacking. Until Death’s climactic action sequence begins at day, with sunlight streaming through the windows of a warehouse. When the characters step outside the warehouse, it switches to the dark of night in a matter of seconds. But on the whole, Simon Fellows’ work here is a step up from his previous collaboration with Van Damme, Second in Command. That’s admittedly not saying much, but still.
And though Van Damme makes a strong impression as the film’s center, the same cannot be said about the characters that exist on the periphery. Even Oscar nominee Stephen Rea disappoints. When I saw Rea was involved with the film, I thought he’d make for a nice change from the usual C-list level actors who play villains opposite Van Damme, but he actually didn’t end up bringing anything special to the film. The only thing Rea’s missing from his performance is a villain’s mustache to twirl during his monologues.
Until Death has two different endings. The ending you get depends on where you’re watching it. In the US, we get a longer, more positive finale that ties things up into a neat little bow. In the UK, the ending is much shorter and more downbeat. I actually think the American ending fits the themes better, whereas the UK ending feels more like an attempt to get the film in closer to the 90 minute mark. (If you’re not in the US or the UK, I don’t know what ending you’ll see.)
Part Bad Lieutenant, part Regarding Henry, and part Johnnie To, Until Death isn’t the most original flick, but the various parts added together make for an entertaining, if flawed, action movie. Fans of Jean-Claude Van Damme should give it a look. Van Damme’s work as the dirty cop Anthony Stowe hints at the dramatic powerhouse performance he would give in JCVD the following year. Until Death has a lot of things wrong with it, but Van Damme saw the opportunity to do something different and made the most of it.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 6/10