Movie Review ~ The Last Mercenary

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious former secret service agent must urgently return to France when his estranged son is falsely accused of arms and drug trafficking by the government, following a blunder by an overzealous bureaucrat and a mafia operation.

Stars: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Samir Decazza, Assa Sylla, Djimo, Alban Ivanov, Miou-Miou, Eric Judor, Nassim Lyes, Patrick Timsit, Valérie Kaprisky

Director: David Charhon

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  For all the resurrection stories of old stars (and ‘90s action stars), none have been more interesting to me than the slowly winding road that is leading Jean-Claude Van Damme back into the hearts of viewers across the globe.  This is a now 60-year-old that, planned or not, has been playing the long game and taking his time to regain some of that boffo celebrity clout he had back in the early ‘90s when he was a can’t miss performer.  I mean, the run this guy had in the first part of the 1990’s alone is spectacular.  Bloodsport, Cyborg, Kickboxer, Lionheart, Death Warrant, Double Impact, Universal Soldier, Nowhere to Run, Hard Target, Timecop, Sudden Death…all made within a seven-year period and nearly all very watchable even to this day.  Sure, there are some groaners in the mix and Van Damme’s acting didn’t develop as fast as his biceps did, but the films were precisely engineered to his brand of strength…much more so than his contemporaries.

Then, an admitted rough patch occurred, and I won’t even go into the numerous flops, lousy sequels, vanity projects, and plain trash he got involved with that finally ended his run and victory laps around Hollywood.  The Muscles from Brussels retreated (going back on his promise from 1985’s No Retreat, No Surrender!) and though he worked here and there, it was only in gossip magazines about his private life that most fans got a look at what Van Damme was up to.  However, in 2008, a self-aware film he made titled JCVD seemed to indicate that whatever joke he had become, he was more than a little into it and he soon began to lean into that alter-ego persona quite heavily.  Culminating in the clever but cancelled too early Amazon Prime show Jean-Claude Van Johnson in 2017, it was clear that Van Damme’s comedic skills had sharpened to a fine point and after a few random action flicks he’s joined forces with Netflix for a new French action film making its debut in the US. 

If any of those films from the 1990’s I mentioned above is on your shortlist for go-to flicks when you need a nostalgic boost of action, The Last Mercenary is going to be right up your alley.  Here is a film that has been built from the ground up around Van Damme (The Expendables 2) and what he’s good at today.  Namely, kicking some butt, doing his trademark splits (I think), being goofy, and demonstrating an elevated commitment to a dramatic side that I hadn’t seen up until now.  Packaged with energy by director David Charon and featuring a supporting cast of likable players ready-made to run with a franchise should Van Damme feel like it, it’s an absolute treat for Van Damme-ers that have stuck with him all these years as well as newcomers that are keyed up for a breathlessly paced thriller.

A surprisingly chaotic script with numerous subplots from Charhon and co-screenwriter Ismaël Sy Savané makes watching this with subtitles a bit of a challenge, but compared to the terribly dubbed English version, it’s the lesser of two evils.  What you need to know is that Van Damme plays a French secret service agent known as The Mist who is called back to Paris when his son Archie (Samir Decazza) is targeted by government agents and a rogue faction within his own office when the protection/immunity granted for his son is accidentally lifted and his identity is exposed.  It might not have been that big of a deal for Archie, if a crazed arms dealer who fancies himself a modern-day Tony Montana from 1983’s Scarface hadn’t been committing crimes all over town using his name and immunity to get out of prosecution.  With that safety removed, a bunch of people want to get the fake Archie but are going after the real Archie by mistake.  The only one that can protect him is his father…who he has never met.

Father reuniting with estranged son is an easy base set-up and the screenwriters find creative building blocks to stack on top of their base which drive the movie furiously forward.  Van Damme helps to keep a lot of that momentum moving, bursting through the action sequences with the energy of someone ¼ his age (and I’m pretty sure a 20 year old was doing some of those stunts) and resisting the urge to drop too many one liners along the way.  The script has him donning a bunch of low-impact disguises that are less about fooling the crowd and more about entertaining the audience in showing how far Van Damme will go for a bigger laugh…and it works. If you don’t leap for the remote and rewind his short dance in a nightclub just to see him bust a move then you are a stronger viewer than I am.  If Decazza isn’t the most dynamic co-star as his son at first, he’s surrounded by a stellar ensemble including Assa Sylla as Dalila, a streetwise girl from the neighborhood who is likely the toughest of them all and some strong comedy from Djimo as Momo, Dailia’s brother. Alban Ivanov steals numerous scenes as a clueless government pawn who eventually has to wise up and take charge. 

Maybe it was the excitement to see Van Damme in such a well-made film (production design, effects, and even song selection are top notch) but I totally loved The Last Mercenary and found myself forgiving the occasional slide into conventionality.  It’s mild enough for parents who grew up on the violence of Bloodsport to show their young teens without worrying too much about bad content but also action-packed enough to keep genre fans enthralled for the duration.  I can imagine if this is a success (and I believe audiences will flip for it) a sequel will be guaranteed. Fingers crossed Van Damme can rise to the top of the Netflix charts because I want to see more of these characters in future installments.

Movie Review ~ Ride the Eagle

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Leif’s estranged mother dies, she leaves him a ‘conditional inheritance’. He has to complete her elaborate to-do list before he gets her cabin in Yosemite. Leif steps into a wild world as the mother he never really knew tries to make amends from beyond the grave.

Stars: Jake Johnson, Susan Sarandon, D’Arcy Carden, J.K. Simmons, Luis Fernandez-Gil, Cleo King, Eric Edelstein, Billy Bungeroth

Director: Trent O’Donnell

Rated: NR

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Is it OK for me to start out by saying that the whole concept of Ride the Eagle didn’t thrill me at first? I mean, the entirety of the “Mom’s dead, but she left a video for you to watch and a list of things for you to do.” feels not just like something we’ve seen before but also a complete set-up to eventually wring the tears out of you in a most manipulative way.  Then celebrated television director Trent O’Donnell goes and casts Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon (Blackbird) as the mom seen only on a VHS tape…and even the casual viewer knows Sarandon has carved out a small niche playing dead or nearly deceased mothers ready to impart one final message to their loved ones left behind.  All this to say that I went into Ride the Eagle buckled in and ready to have my emotions toyed with.

How refreshing to find that the emotions that star and co-screenwriter (with O’Donnell) Jake Johnson played around with weren’t solely surrounding the sadness of loss but of something much more intriguing.  The road far more traveled was bypassed for a journey through a path less shaped by convention and that’s where the enjoyment (pure and mighty enjoyment) in this entertaining bit of whimsy comes on the strongest and lingers the longest.  That it was filmed in the middle of the pandemic with barely any of the eight-member cast in the same room is an accomplishment, especially when you consider the believable dynamics that are formed between the actors in 80-some minutes of screen time.

When he receives news his estranged mother Honey (Sarandon) has passed away after a brief illness, bohemian bongo player Leif (Johnson, Jurassic World) isn’t sure how to process the news at first.  Though she left him when he was 12 and he’s now past 40, their issues remained unresolved at the time of her death.  Living in a tiny house with his dog behind the mansion of his manager, the sometime musician (he’s the oldest member of a band called, hysterically, Restaurant), he doesn’t have much to worry about in terms of actual responsibility. Then, after a visit from family friend Missy (Cleo King, Transformers: Age of Extinction), he learns that his mother left him her impressive cabin in the gorgeous woods of Yosemite.  There’s a catch, though, and it comes in the form of a condition attached to the cabin. 

In order to become the owner of the cabin, Leif will have to complete a set of tasks designed by his mother as a final way of saying good-bye to the son she never got to know.  In doing so, he learns about the mother he passed on the opportunity to forgive in later years when she attempted to reach out.  So begins an eye-opening weekend for Leif and Nora (the dog) when they arrive at the cabin to find Honey has more than a few surprises up her sleeve for her son.  Just wait until you see what she’s hiding in all her cabinets, or what waits on the other side of the lake she has him kayak toward, or how he winds up talking to an ex (D’Arcy Carden, Bombshell, absolute perfection) and finds that maybe the one that got away thankfully didn’t go that far. 

If the film occasionally goes a bit too far in its sourness (the improvisatory talents of all involved tends to have the actors resort to dropping a f#$k or some variation because it sounds conversational…it doesn’t) it gets in a few good zingers here and there that actually feel earned.  For example, only a talent like J.K. Simmons (The Tomorrow War) could deliver a line written by Johnson/O’Donnell that is so incredibly filthy in the middle of a beautiful bit of eulogizing.  Even an attempted bit of phone naughtiness between Carden and Johnson goes off the rails with riotous glee.  These are the rare bits of perfectly crafted dialogue in film we hardly get nowadays and Ride the Eagle has quite a few of them.

Unpredictable is hard to come by in film but Ride the Eagle manages to stay ahead of viewers for nearly the entirety of its short run time.  You’re so invested in the characters and, in particular, Johnson’s incredibly charismatic star turn in the type of role that would normally be poison in gaining affection from an audience much less sympathy, that you won’t be thinking about the end.  If anything, you’ll be dreading it will soon be over. 

Movie Review ~ The Exchange

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: A socially awkward but highly enterprising teenager decides to acquire a “mail order best friend”; a sophisticated exchange student from France. Instead, he ends up importing his personal nightmare, a cologne-soaked, chain-smoking, sex-obsessed youth who quickly becomes the hero of his new community.

Stars: Ed Oxenbould, Avan Jogia, Justin Hartley, Jennifer Irwin, Paul Braunstein, Jayli Wolf, David Huband

Director: Dan Mazer

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: By coincidence, I was reading a book about John Hughes at the same I was sent a screener for the new high school comedy The Exchange. Perhaps having Hughes at the back of my mind helped, but you don’t have to squint your eyes too hard to see the parallels between the angst-y teenagers from the Hughes-ian ‘80s Chicago suburbs with the ones that filter through screenwriter Tim Long’s Quebec of a similar era.  Often, that comparison doesn’t come out in favor of the new kid on the block, but in the case of The Exchange there is an equality of sorts that keeps its sweet sentiment at the forefront and makes it a worthwhile way to spend your evening.

All Tim (Ed Oxenbould, The Visit) wants to find in his tiny Canadian provincial town is someone that appreciates art films as much as he does.  Sadly, this is a time when all kids his age wanted was their MTV and the town was more focused on celebrating what they are known for, the white squirrel.  With his mother (Jennifer Irwin, The Mortuary Collection) focused on putting together the annual parade to celebrate the mascot and his shop-owner father (Paul Braunstein, Jigsaw) concerned with the economic downturn closing a number of family-run businesses, Tim is largely on his own and fending for himself in a sea of sameness.

Then, his French teacher tells the class about the foreign exchange program and Tim has an idea.  Why not host a French student and import some culture not just into his life, but his stagnant family dynamic as well?  Not only would it benefit him, but it could help in other ways.  In short order, the papers are filled out and the big day comes and that’s when Tim is in for a culture shock he couldn’t have anticipated. Instead of a well-behaved, cultured Frenchman, Tim is matched with Stéphane (Avan Jogia, Shaft), a ribald and free-thinking ball of energy that isn’t anything what Tim expected, but turns out to be precisely what he needs. 

It shouldn’t be too hard to predict the direction The Exchange is headed from the start, but credit is given to Long and director Dan Mazer for taking a sunny scenic route to get to their final destination.  By spending some time in getting to know more about Tim and Stéphane, we get to see why each has something to offer the other and how their shared experience winds up being beneficial.  That’s also helped by the strong casting of Oxenbould and especially Jogia in the trickier than it looks Frenchman-out-of-water in a town that initially accepts him only to turn their back when he’s suspected of a crime he might not have committed.  That Stéphane is from a mixed background introduces some race politics in that Hughes wouldn’t have attempted in his day but Long handles it with a light touch, not letting things get too out of hand before drawing the comedy back into the events.

Aside from the two leads, the ever-dependable Irwin is on hand for the typical mom advice but also on a tiny journey of her own as well.  That there was time to fit that in during this 93-minute movie mostly focused on the typical bit of raunchy bit of teen romp business was nice to see as well.  An arrogant gym coach played by Justin Hartley (A Bad Moms Christmas) might have been good for some cheap laughs but it’s the one character played so arch it felt like a sketch creation rather than the real people the other actors were going for.  Hartley’s reach is admirable, but it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the company.  I also thought Jayli Wolf’s eccentric sorta-love interest for Tim was oddball fun as well – it’s definitely a character Hughes would have dotted on his periphery of a high school dance scene and used for a laugh or three.

A rather unexpected surprise (I nearly passed on screening this and am glad I didn’t), The Exchange is a nice retro throwback to the teen classics we love to revisit from the ‘80s…and it doesn’t need to resort to raunch or extremes to find its funny.  By keeping things genuine, it remains endearing. I think it’s c’est bon.