Think twice before you clone a killer.
Jean-Claude Van Damme. You remember him, right? He was a lower-tier action star in the 1980s and '90s, making a big splash with his debut, Bloodsport, a smaller one with John Woo's American debut Hard Target, and a lot of lame movies in between. The low point of his film career was 1999 when Legionnaire became the first of his films to debut on video. Personally, I usually avoided his films; the only ones I saw cover to cover were Hard Target and Timecop. Hard Target had a few cool action scenes, but it didn't live up to the good things I'd heard about John Woo from his Hong Kong movies, and Timecop wasn't bad, but it didn't measure up to the worst Steven Seagal movie I've seen (the name escapes me…the one with the oil company).
Needless to say, I had very low expectations for Replicant—the title lifted straight from Blade Runner, the lame cloning premise (with apologies to George Lucas), Van Damme. I was surprised, then, when instead of making derisive comments under my breath, my eyes were glued to the TV and I was actually excited and interested in what would happen.
Facts of the Case
Jake Riley (Michael Rooker, Cliffhanger) is a Seattle detective who has been following a serial killer (Van Damme) for three years. Just days before his retirement, the killer strikes again, but Jake is off the case. A secret government agency hires him as a consultant on a project they have been working on. They have cloned the killer from evidence found at a crime scene, and need Jake to help train the neophyte duplicate, who has some genetic memories from the real killer, plus a telepathic link with him, but is like a newborn in many other respects. The two close in finding the killer's identity and stop him once and for all.
Reading that description of the plot, you might be thinking it sounds…well, like another lame Van Damme movie. It may be low budget, it may be direct to video, it may be a tired concept, but somehow it works.
Van Damme has a very limited range as an actor, and this script does not try to get him to work outside that range. The two characters he plays are supposed to be genetic duplicates, but they are very different. One is a tough, psychologically scarred killer, the other is a child in the body of a man. He manages to make both characters interesting. He even gets a few chances to display his martial arts prowess, though he doesn't seem to be quite as nimble as he used to be.
The story line could have concentrated on the technological aspects of cloning. It could have been content to let the action dominate, to consist only of set pieces strung together. It could have been just another cat-and-mouse detective hunting a killer story. It exists at all these levels, but it combines them all, along with some dark humor, to be more than the sum of the parts. There's something oddly compelling about watching the freshly hatched clone learning to experience the world while under Jake's rather violent tutilege. His slow realizations of the genetic memories he shares with his sociopathic doppelgänger move the plot along in a not entirely conventional way. The action scenes are integrated into the story, and while they give Van Damme the opportunity to show off his skills, they don't seem like mere set pieces. The dark humor, rather than detracting from the story, heightens our feelings for the clone character. Yes, I actually said that you can empathize with a character portrayed by Jean-Claude Van Damme. One scene in particular (though it's a gratuitous way to get some T&A into the movie) shows a prostitute taking the clueless Van Damme back to her dive apartment. He has the body of a 40-year-old, but the awareness of a child, and he doesn't quite grasp the nuances of a sexual transaction, if you get my drift; it reminded me of a similar scene in Forrest Gump, only with a little more flesh and a lot more violence.
Ringo Lam is the Hong Kong expatriate who directed Replicant. He's best know for directing the Chow Yun-Fat movie City on Fire, and he previously directed Van Damme in Maximum Risk. I think a lot of credit goes to Lam for giving the film gritty realism. I think, because of the low-budget position of the film, he could do certain things that a Hollywood movie could not have, giving it more of that hard edge that Hong Kong films have. A Hollywood movie would not show a killer who kills single mothers and their children. There is a climatic fight/chase in a hospital that has a level of tasteless violence (that's the term that came to mind whilst watching it) that you would not find in a mainstream movie.
One last comment before I move on to the DVD. Recently I reviewed See Spot Run. Aside from being a truly terrible movie, it was set in Seattle but filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia (which is about two hours north in Canada). I was incredibly annoyed that there was nothing identifiable that made it look like it really was Seattle. Replicant, with its low budget, accomplished what that bigger budget movie could not. It also is set in Seattle but filmed in Vancouver, but with a few establishing shots of Puget Sound, the Space Needle, and other landmarks, it makes it feel like it's actually Seattle. Not to mention that it rains several times during the film.
Artisan produced a nice DVD of this film. The movie is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Aside from a few dust specks, occasional edge enhancement, and some undistracting pixelized shimmering in some backgrounds, it's a very good transfer. Colors are accurate and natural with good shadow detail. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1. I did not notice much work from the rear channels, but the audio quality is strong and there's appropriate oomph to the explosions from the subwoofer.
Extra content consists of a commentary track, deleted scenes, a trailer, and photo and storyboard galleries. The commentary is a "Criterion-style" track featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Michael Rooker. Since their comments were recorded separately and edited together, there is no dead air in the track. Both actors have interesting observations to share both about the filming of Replicant and about their careers. While not the best track I've ever heard, I enjoyed hearing what they had to say, and props have to go to the 41-year-old Van Damme for admitting that a stunt double performed some of the more impressive physical feats in the movie. The deleted scenes are interesting, showing extra character development or some shots that were too violent or disturbing even for this movie. However, they were transferred from a dubbed video rough cut of the film (if the time code is correct, at that point it ran over three hours, though that isn't unusual for a rough cut), and are difficult to watch due to the extremely poor video quality.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't have many negative comments to make about the movie, but I do have to ask: Did we really need another movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme where we get a shot of his ass?
I have to chide Artisan yet again for not including English subtitles. These should be mandatory for all discs.
It's far from a great film, but Replicant is quite possibly the best film Van Damme has starred in since his debut in Bloodsport. Fans of the genre should at least give it a rental.
Found not guilty and better than it needed to be. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Actors Jean-Claude Van Damme and Michael Rooker
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