Sony // 2011 // 101 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // September 6th, 2011
Twice the fire...double the power!
Brazil (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kickboxer) isn't just a hitman -- he's the best contract killer in the business. You've probably heard that compliment given before in a movie, but Brazil is the real deal: he trusts no one, he lives alone, and he lacks any sense of empathy.
Of course, Brazil wasn't always the best around. In his heyday. Flint (Scott Adkins, The Medallion) was every bit his equal, pulling off sniper jobs for Interpol like it was nobody's business. Then he got married, tried to escape the life. Now he's hiding out from the drug dealer that put his wife in a coma.
When said drug dealer is released from prison, both men accept contracts on his head. One for revenge. One for money. United by their common goals and mutual talents, Brazil and Flint take on the drug dealer, his thugs and some crooked Interpol agents that want them both dead.
That sounds like a perfectly good setup for a head cracking, nose breaking, shotgun blasting good time to me. Unfortunately, Assassination Games is an entirely different sort of action movie. The kind of action movie that doesn't want to be a straight action movie, but a character driven drama ala Man On Fire.
While I admire its ambition, the writing, directing, and acting aren't quite up to the task of a serious drama, making Assassination Games a massive bore to sit through. It's a cheesy, pretentious, and poorly paced action film with a jet black nihilistic streak.
Even worse, it sports only a handful of decent action scenes. I mean, who cares about nihilism when you can watch Van Damme and Adkins wail on each other? The good news is that the rumble happens pretty early on and, credit where credit's due, it's a damn nifty fight between the two stars. The bad news is that it lasts all of three minutes only to segue into a "Hey, lets team up" plot point, making the set piece feel rushed and anticlimactic. Wouldn't you want these two action stars going at it They Live style for a good fifteen minutes or so? We can only assume that kind of extensive shoot just wasn't in the budget.
Clumsy melodrama, on the other hand? Assassination Games has it in abundance. Most of it is wrapped up in a subplot where the Muscles From Brussels rescues a busty European prostitute from her abusive pimp. They fall in love, and, if you've seen any action film since 1982, you know their burgeoning romance is doomed from the get-go.
What's even more monstrous than the dark corners this subplot finds itself is how effortlessly Van Damme's Brazil is willing to give in to her fate. Story wise, it throws any sympathy for the character of Brazil out the window. Yet Van Damme plays the character with such stone cold resilience that it is hard not to go along with it as a feasible choice for the thoroughly messed-up hitman. Though he's never been regarded as an excellent actor, Van Damme shows some genuine chops here, selling Brazil's existential angst and struggle with empathy very realistically. Brazil is a compelling, if morally downtrodden, antihero who almost makes up for the missteps of the film centered around him. It's just a shame he doesn't get to kick more people in the face.
Where Van Damme takes cinematic lemons and makes lemonade, Scott Adkins proves he has a long way to go before he's seriously referred to as an actor. In any other movie, that would be okay -- the guy is an absolute beast when it comes to performing a choreographed fist fight. Unfortunately, he's tasked with playing the overly emotional hitman. Though his screen presence is less stiff Van Damme's, he just doesn't convey enough depth and pathos to pull off a grieving killer. Mostly he just talks to himself or his comatose wife (in a fluctuating British-to-American accent), checks on her webcam feed (like most action heroes, he has it connected to his smart phone), and has a lot of flashbacks wherein he watches her pre-coma gang rape (!) at the hands of the bad guy. The few scenes we get where he's saddled with Brazil or kicking thug ass is refreshing, through their staccato staging and lack of pace make Adkins' big scenes feel like action movie teasing.
He can thank the direction by Ernie Barabarash (Cube Zero), which doesn't provide Assassination Games nearly enough substance. Though many might blame the overtly lurid script by Aaron Rahsaan Thomas (CSI: NY), there are enough solid story elements to string together a decent action/neo-noir film.
Barabash gets the prevalence of the latter subgenre, shooting film in largely neutral, predictably bland color schemes befitting a David Fincher knockoff. The more contemporary films I watch, the more abundantly clear it is to me that shaky cam and washed out color palettes are hard evidence of creatively bankrupt film direction. To his credit, Barbarash keeps the shaky cam to a minimum, though with the lack of action I imagine that wasn't too hard of a choice. Mr. Barabash, your heart is clearly in the right place, but a word of advice: if your movie is called Assassination Games and is about two hitmen played by Van Damme and Scott Adkins, your first instinct shouldn't be to dial down the action and crank up the melodrama.
Sony's DVD serves up Assassination Games in a better package than it deserves. The picture is very sharp and fairly well detailed, albeit not enough to make you forget it's a direct-to-video release shot in a third world Eastern European country. The sound mix isn't terribly aggressive, but has enough solid gunshot effects to keep you from completely dozing off.
Extras include some deleted scenes and previews for other upcoming DTV action movies.
Jean-Claude Van Dammed.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes