Judge Joel Pearce considers this Jean-Claude Van Damme flick the Twinkie of actioners—sort of tasty in a way, but not at all nutritious or satisfying.
Vengeance is his.
Ah, a direct-to-DVD cop movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. I knew what to expect. Some shootouts, a brainless script, Van Damme ignoring the fact that he's too old to be a martial arts hero, and not enough breaks in the action to care.
But that's not what Until Death is. It starts out that way, but imagine my surprise as it gradually started to grab my attention, and accomplished so much more. If nothing else, Until Death is the most ambitious B-grade action flick I've seen in a long time, despite some weak moments. I think I may even be about to write a positive review.
Facts of the Case
Anthony Stowe (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Hard Target) is a tough cop with a bad attitude, some bad habits, and a criminal ex-partner (Stephen Rea, V for Vendetta) whom he wants to bring down for good. He's quickly running out of allies, though, thanks to his despicable behavior on and off the job. He's also alienated his wife Valerie (Selina Giles, V for Vendetta), who is now pregnant with another man's child. But all downward spirals end somewhere, and Anthony's ends when he lands in a coma and has plenty of time to think through his life. It's time to make things right, but he's got a lot of enemies to deal with first.
For its first half hour, Until Death runs like any other action cop flick. It has a couple of bland shootouts, punctuated by some of the most blatant disregard for police procedure that I have ever seen. Anthony is completely unlikeable, Stephen Rea disappears entirely after the first scene, and too much time is wasted on arguments and posturing between Anthony and the other cops. New characters are introduced and dismissed just as quickly, as a severe shortage of action sets in. I began to write a scathing review in my head.
But then, as the film developed, some key things started to change. First, there were several really impressive set pieces. The later action scenes don't feel like direct-to-video fare, and several deserve individual mention. A shootout in a restaurant is edited with a steady hand, perfectly balancing suspense with clarity. A massive shootout at the end is even better, making good use of location and camera angles. Characters don't have bottomless ammo magazines, nor do enemies appear from nowhere. Van Damme is also satisfied to keep to the shooting. He realizes that he's no longer a martial arts hero, and doesn't try to relive the glory days.
This is also one of Van Damme's better performances. At first, he just seems pissed off and grouchy, but it makes more sense as the character starts to change. His first few adjustments are well performed, as Anthony realizes that he wants to change, but is trapped in cycles that he himself has created. As he tries to make restitution for the horrible things he has done, I actually found myself getting attached to the character. Van Damme will never be a great actor, but this performance shows a lot more talent than I ever expected to see.
I can't help wondering what Until Death would have been like had it been made by more capable hands. This is fine work for Simon Fellows, whose most famous credit to date is 2004's Blessed. Judge David Johnson found the same to be true of Second in Command, Fellows and Van Damme's previous collaboration. And you know what? Some major script adjustments and Antoine Fuqua at the helm could have turned Until Death into a very solid cops-and-robbers movie. A more skilled support cast and a more charismatic leading man could have gotten me hooked from the opening scene. As it stands, Until Death is a bit of a paradox: It's an overly ambitious trash movie, that does almost none of the things that make trash movies appealing. It doesn't handle the characters and plot well enough to work as a compelling story, but it also lacks the humor and camp that makes these direct-to-video films palatable. In the end, it sits trapped in the middle, unlikely to ever find a real audience. In a way, that's too bad, because action-craving audiences could do a lot worse.
Sony realized that Until Death is never going to make it big in any circles. Like any film that will soon sink to the bottom of video store PV sections, no special effort has been extended here. The technical quality of the disc is quite high, featuring a slick 2.35:1 image and a bass-thumping, ear-popping, well-mixed 5.1 audio track. It looks and feels much bigger than it actually is, which helps. In the extras department, Sony doesn't even bother pretending. There are about a dozen trailers, but that's it.
I'll be honest. If you're browsing this web site, reading reviews to learn which great movies are hitting DVD these days, you could do a lot better than Until Death. It will mostly appeal to the masses of beer-swilling, beer-gutted men who rent anything with Jean-Claude Van Damme starring. It's almost good enough to warrant a stronger recommendation, though, thanks to some genuinely solid moments. I guess I'll file it as a slightly pleasant surprise. If you're an action junkie, give this one a shot. It might give you a taste for something more substantial. If you're looking for a film that will turn you into a member of the Van Damme club, this probably won't be enough. But at least it's better than Derailed.
What the heck. I'm going to let this one go free.
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