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
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.