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Maximum Risk

(1996) ** R
105 min. Sony Pictures Releasing. Cast: Jean-Claude van Damme, Natasha Henstridge, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Zach Grenier, Paul Ben-Victor.

/content/films/3178/1.jpgIt's emblematic of Jean Claude Van Damme's career as an action star that Maximum Risk is about as could as he could manage. The generic action title says it all, though this 1996 B+ movie comes tantalizingly close to working, thanks to the direction of respected HK action helmer Ringo Lam (in his English-language debut). As it is, the energetic action isn't quite enough to overcome an undernourished story.

Maximum Risk is one of three (arguably, four) pictures in which Van Damme plays a dual role. Why a performer of such evident limitation was thrice provided this acting challenge remains a mystery, though the plot device was obviously on its way to becoming a time-honored genre gimmick. Anyway, Van Damme plays brothers Mikhail Suverov (tied up with the Russian mob), and Alain Moreau (a French cop). When Alain gets introduced to his brother's corpse, he determines to posthumously get to know the brother he never knew he had. It's a plan that courts danger, and Alain soon discovers that both the Russian mob (represented by Deadwood's Zach Grenier) and the FBI (represented by The Wire's Paul Ben-Victor) will stop at nothing to obtain a secret left behind by Mikhail.

Tracing Mikhail's activity from the South of France to New York City, Alain is frequently mistaken for his brother, most sexily by Mikhail's American girlfriend Alex (Natasha Henstridge of Species). The Muscles from Brussels does plenty of "Van Dammage," beginning with a chase that ends on a motorized fruit-and-vegetable cart (on the theory that nothing in an action movie is more satisfying than flying produce). The film's most memorable action sequences take place on or above the streets of France (New York is replicated with a little help from Canada and Philadelphia). In addition to the chases, Lam runs the typical gamut of gunplay, bumper cars, and fights, including a steamroom fight involving grappling, high-kicking, and carefully wrapped towels.

There's some nostalgia value to Maximum Risk, as it's the sort of film that wouldn't be likely to make it all the way to today's multiplex. The flaccid drama, dopey dialogue ("Nothing makes sense. Who isn't trying to kill us at this point?"), and cardboard characters (like Alain's pet cabbie, who's fishing for material for a novel) don't speak highly for the screenplay by Larry Ferguson (co-scripter of The Hunt for Red October), lame Crime and Punishment allusion notwithstanding. The reason, if any, to revisit this material is Lam, who brings a surer technique and greater immediacy to the action that would most of his contemporaries. The climax's downright wacky stunt in a meat-packing plant is well-placed to send an audience away thinking they've got their money's worth.

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