Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Van Dammage: Like a Diamond

"It's going to be big, the Ben-Hur of martial art!  It will be filmed in Europe and China and show the philosophy of karate, the epic sweep of its past history.  We have friendship, relationship, pirates, we have Shaolin temples...I want to show something special, before hanging up on karate."
     Jean-Claude Van Damme on his directorial debut, The Quest

Depending on who you ask, the idea for The Quest came to Jean-Claude Van Damme either in a dream which he then woke up his wife to tell about or in a dingy Thai restaurant where JCVD was somberly eating and drinking alone.  Whatever the inspiration, The Quest was to be Van Damme's final goodbye to the genre that made him, the martial arts flick.  Since becoming a near overnight sensation thanks to 1988's high kicking, world warrior tournament classic Bloodsport, Van Damme always had higher aspirations than low budget karate movies.  Inspired by the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus, On the Waterfront and Ben-Hur, Van Damme has always wanted to go epic.  As his Hollywood profile grew, Van Damme attempted to go more mainstream, toning down his pure karate kicking antics in favor of big, Hollywood style shoot'em up, exploded up action as witnessed in Universal Soldier and Hard Target, which blended bullets and jump spin kicks.  Nowhere to Run featured nary a kick but many a punch'em up complete with love story and kids involved but was a bit of a misstep financially. 

After 1994's Timecop showcased explosions, splits and kicks in a classy way, Van Damme thought it was really time to shut down the karate machine.  1995's Sudden Death lacked any of his trademark high kicks, shirtless scenes or butt shots but still needed a throwaway line to explain his French accent (played semi-pro hockey in Canada).  A take on the popular Die Hard formula where one man takes on many to save the ones he loves, Sudden Death is all rough and tumble fights, gunfire, crashing helicopters, exploding cars and the like inside and outside a hockey arena.  The film performed worse than Van Damme's previous 3 releases.  Looking to take control of his own career, Van Damme announced he would be making the leap to the directors chair for The Quest, an epic martial arts film that would be his goodbye to the genre.  Hoping it to be Bloodsport, but bigger, JCVD approached Oliver Stone to direct who respected the Belgian for making his own way.  After describing the story and scenes, Stone politely declined stating that Van Damme didn't need him since everything was already in the actor's head.

The Quest was announced at the Cannes film festival in 1993 where Van Damme got the one up on Arnold's latest, Last Action Hero by placing a hot air balloon over the water and renting a yacht to throw a lavish party that attracted studio heads and super models.  Quickly selling millions of dollars worth of international rights, it looked like Van Damme's dream would be coming true.  The Quest follows Christopher Dubois, a street performer who steals from local mobsters and goes on the run but is then kidnapped by pirates before being sold off to muy thai fighters and embarking on a journey to enter a fabled tournament held in the Lost City in China where the prize is a dragon made of solid gold.  Van Damme looked to have real life boxer George Foreman, who was in the midst of a career comeback in the ring at age 45, to play his trainer in the film.  At some point that idea was jettisoned and durable character actor James Remar (The Warriors, 48 Hours) was brought in.  Van Damme always admired Sean Connery but settled for another former James Bond, Roger Moore to play a fancy yet shady con-man that helps him get to the tournament.  Names like Kim Basinger and Madonna were rumored to be on VD's wish list to play a spunky journalist but TV actress Janet Gunn ended up in the role.

Co-written by Steve Klein and Paul Mones based on a story by Van Damme and Bloodsport inspiration Frank Dux, The Quest is a polished effort and solid display of Van Damme's talent behind the camera, especially for a first time director.  Utilizing the 1920's setting, the film makes good use of urban and exotic settings from the streets of "New York", the jungles of Thailand and the arid desert of Tibet to create a romantic and exotic adventure filled odyssey with a golden sheen.  The trials of Van Damme include fist and feet fights on the streets, on a boat, during a pirate boarding and battle, on the beach and finally inside and outside the ring of the Ghang-Gheng.  Like Bloodsport before it, The Quest showcases fighters from around the world utilizing different fighting techniques like sumo, karate, savate, grappling, capoeira and boxing.  Sadly, the film can't quite top the fight scenes from Bloodsport which were fast, fun and brutal as they come off a bit repetitive and one-note with an overuse of slow motion that do little more than show off his glistening and striated muscles.

Post release, Van Damme would state he was not happy with the film as many pages of character development and training were removed to reduce costs.  Estimated to have cost $30 million dollars, Van Damme claims to have sold $20 million at Cannes which was an exaggeration according to producer Moshe Diamont.  Upon it's release, Van Damme would claim the film only cost $12 million which I'm guessing is a below the line figure.  Hitting theaters in April of 1996, The Quest would open in the #1 spot with a $7 million dollar gross on it's way to a tepid $21 million total and continue our man Van's career slide.  Worldwide the film brought in an additional $35 million for a $57 million total, far from the above $100 million grosses of Universal Soldier, Timecop and Street Fighter.  4 movies and 3 years later, Van Damme would be relegated to Direct to Video releases. 

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