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Replicant
(2001)
 

Director: Ringo Lam              
Cast:
Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michael Rooker, Catherine Dent


It's somewhat hard to believe that about seven years ago, Van Damme was the Great White Hope for Hollywood martial arts movies, It could have been worse - they could have gone all the way and made the box art like the one for "Calender Girl"scoring his biggest hit with Timecop just several months after Steven Segal had begun his career descent with On Deadly Ground. Compare this situation with today, when you'll have to find Van Damme's latest movies at the video store instead of at the theaters. Though when you look at just what happened in those several years, it's hard to feel sorry for the guy; news reports of his drunk driving and spousal abuse, as well as his admission of cocaine use (which sounded casual instead of regretful or apologetic) didn't exactly endear himself to the public. But what really killed his career after reaching an all-time high was his almost complete inability to choose quality projects. Critical and box office disappointments like Street Fighter, The Quest, and Double Team didn't seem to make him decide any differently, not even when his movies started to be released by Tri-Star (Knock Off, Universal Soldier: The Return) - which, for the past few years, has been the label that Sony uses when it releases a movie it has no box office confidence in. (And it looks like their recently resurrected Screen Gems label is shaping up to be used for more or less the same thing.)

As you can imagine, when his movies started to get released directly to video in North America, they weren't any better - you don't exactly see Legionnaire and Desert Heat flying off the video shelves. (Though I must admit I found Desert Heat to be bad in a so-bad-it's-good way, and I recommend it to anyone looking for an action movie of that particular kind.) I imagine other people, like myself, around that time were now pretty disheartened about the chance of Van Damme ever starring again in a good movie. Then came Van Damme's latest direct-to-video release, Replicant. I must admit that at first I was somewhat hesitant to rent it, but then I remembered my experience with Dolph Lundgren - I thought he had sunk to a new low with Fallen Knight, but I took another chance on him with Bridge Of Dragons, and I was surprised to find it genuinely entertaining. So it seemed only fair to give Van Damme another chance. So after all of these years, has Van Damme finally managed to pick another decent project? Well... overall it isn't, but it is a step in the right direction. The end results do suggest that he was at least trying to improve over his recent output; for one thing, the movie actually gives him a challenge in the acting department, requiring him to act differently than the other roles he's previously been in.

Okay, maybe not totally different than what he did in Double Impact and Maximum Risk; like in those movies, in Replicant he plays a duo role. Though (technically), the two characters in this movie are not brothers, and they are not the fearless jaw-clenching heroes in those (and his other) movies. The plot: For the past three years, the city of Seattle - hey, how did you guess this was filmed in Vancouver? - has been terrorized by "The Torch" (Van Damme), a really nasty serial killer who targets and kills women that he sees as being bad mothers, afterwards dousing their corpses with whatever flammable liquid is available and burning them up. (Hot Damme!) All of this time he has been pursued by police detective Jake (Rooker), who in the beginning of the movie finds The Torch once again managing to slip away from his latest victim - all the more frustrating, since this night is the last night Jake is on the force before his retirement.

Retired, Jake tries to put the case behind him, but finds it impossible when The Torch J.C. didn't have to rehearse for *this* scenecalls him up on the phone to mock him. So when some mysterious National Security members contact him with an offer to assist on a secret and separate pursuit of The Torch, Jake seizes the opportunity. Though the means of the project turns out to be a surprise (Well, maybe not, because Jake seems to take this bizarre revelation as if it happens every day); scientists at a secret laboratory, using blood found at a crime scene, have managed to successfully clone The Torch, "birthing" him in an adult state in an unintentionally funny sequence not long after Jake arrive . Shortly after that, Jake is assigned custody of this clone, nicknamed "Number One", which, unbelievably, does not bring any bathroom jokes any time into the movie. (At least that name is a bit better than "Number Two".) Jake is told that if he takes Number One out into the big city with him (kind of like a dog on a leash), Number One will be able to help him find The Torch.

At that point, I couldn't help but wonder if it would just be easier to take a picture of Number One, and circulate it through the media for the possibility that members of the public may have seen the identical-looking Torch. To the movie's credit, it does bring up this question a few seconds later... but to the movie's discredit, it doesn't give a satisfying answer to it. The answer that's given is that this project is "top secret". But... couldn't they do something like hand over a sketch of the guy to the cops to aid in their investigation, assuring them that "this is the guy"? The cops might be curious, but I'm sure they would not mind knowing how National Security knew, just as long as they captured a dangerous killer.

Oh, wait - I know the answer. The answer is if they followed common sense, the running time of the movie would be much shorter than it is now. I think this also explains why, after Jake subsequently takes Number One out into the world and spends a long time trying to get Number One to use his psychic powers and getting no real results, Jake finally goes to the police station to scan Number One's face into a computer to find the identity and address of The Torch. So don't bother asking why he just didn't do that immediately after leaving the laboratory with Number One. Feel free, however, to ask yourself questions like why Jake doesn't ask how Number One can help track The Torch before finding out Number one has psychic powers... or, if the declaration that the scientists "increased his psychic powers" means that we all have psychic powers but don't know it... or how they increased his psychic powers in the first place... why a C.I.A-like National Security agency would not leave a serial killer investigation to the F.B.I... or why, if this is the first cloning this National Security agency has done, why they are not only testing it out in the civilian population, but letting someone so inexperienced with clones like Jake take charge of it?

I realize that science fiction does require you frequently to swallow a bit of the implausible, but it's really hard to gulp down the implausible not If you have to wake a sleeping actor, *do not* do so when they have a gun in their handonly when it comes so frequently, but when the incredulity you are asked to swallow is made up of pieces too big to even get in your mouth. As a result, it's really hard to shrug off much of the implausible setup of Replicant. Perhaps if the rest of the movie played out with as much believability as possible with the cards it had been dealt with, the rushed and questionable setup could have been forgiven. Unfortunately, the events that follow this setup have their own problems. The fact that it didn't occur to Jake to scan Number One's face for a very long period of time is just one of the ways the movie goes on for much longer than it really should, and more than outlasts our patience. There are many scenes before and after this point in which the actions of Jake and/or Number One do little to nothing to advance the investigation. As for the character of The Torch, he's actually offscreen for a surprising amount of time, and when he starts reappearing it comes off more of a reminder that he's in this movie than anything else. What's worse is that he makes a couple of appearances where he could easily have been captured, had the protagonists actually first used a little common sense as to how they would actually do it. Instead, their stupidity lets The Torch get away each time and increase the feeling that this movie will never end.

Strangely, there are also a few instances when the movie takes a 180 degree turn, and becomes too fast for its own good. At one point, the movie seems to realize The Torch has been offscreen for so long that it desperately injects into the tedium a totally gratuitous scene when in the middle of the day he chases and (apparently) kills another woman - seeming forgetting that at the same time, Number One, having visions of this murder, is experiencing this at night. Another thing that happens all of a sudden is Jake's sudden change of heart about this clone he is looking afterwards. For much of the movie he mistreats Number One, yelling at and beating up his naive and bewildered slave of sorts (and I must admit it's a perverse pleasure seeing a cowering Van Damme getting smacked around.) Yet around the two-thirds point, we suddenly see Jake soften in his attitude, treating Number One to a walk in the park and giving him his first taste of ice cream with no explanation as to why Jake has suddenly changed his tune.

Though that's not the biggest problem I had concerning this character. Though Michael Rooker has given great performances in the past with movies like Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, in this movie he's unbelievably awful as Jake. It's not just bad, but it seems to be consciously bad, like he isn't even trying to keep one foot in believability. Half the time he seems to be acting like Al Bundy from Married... With Children, and in the other half he takes his inspiration from Subway sandwich clerks, laying out the ham for everyone to see. He isn't even convincing when he groans out loud "Ohhh... geezz..." while nursing his injuries.

So it may not be a surprise then that Van Damme gives a better performance than Feeding time at the zooRooker's, but what is surprising is that Van Damme, for once, is actually pretty good in his own right. Some cynics might say that's because Van Damme doesn't have that much dialogue with either character he plays. But Van Damme shows effort at giving a good performance even when he's not speaking. As The Torch, there are a few times when you see convincing flashes of pure rage in the eyes of this psychopath, and you sense his arrogance and sickness just by his silent and methodical actions - more believable than your typical cinematic ranting loony. The few times he speaks, Van Damme gives his voice a slight rasp that sounds natural as well as appropriate for this greasy-looking psycho. With The Torch, Van Damme manages to remove himself far from his other character in the movie. In contrast to The Torch, Number One is a thoroughly confused babe in the woods who at first simply doesn't understand who he is and what he is being forced to do. Unable to speak at first, he communicates his feeling through his facial expressions and body language. When he does speak, you sense his uncertainty and his frustration about his predicament. One challenging aspect to this part is that Number One slowly starts to learn some things as the movie progresses, and its to Van Damme's credit that he's able to subtly demonstrate that his character is learning new skills and using them, whether it's a new word or a fighting technique.

Speaking of those expected fight sequences, I also admired Van Damme's apparent willingness here to forgo the usual kind of martial arts choreography that portrays him as some kind of superman. The Torch and Number One both engage in fighting styles that are more believable and natural for their characters. Though The Torch is skilled at kicking, he often just simply gives someone an unstylish punch, or grabs a cue stick to swing at someone. Number One, on the other hand, was simply exposed to gymnastic videos before he was released, so at first he uses his gymnastic skills (quite impressive for someone Van Damme's age, I must add) to avoid his opponents. When he does attack someone, he just uses the natural instinct of running at and pouncing on his opponent, and punching him after he has a firm grip. It may not sound fancy, but these sequences actually come across as pretty exciting. With Van Damme actually showing emotion during them, and with some careful choreography, these fights are more believable that what you usually get. With Hong Kong director Ringo Lam behind the camera, it's not surprising that all the action sequences come off as pretty wild, the highlight being a rollercoaster ride through a hospital parkade. Lam can even take something like a simple explosion and make it a treat to see instead of the same old, same old.

The only thing I can think to object about the action sequences is that for the most part, they seem to be forcibly injected periodically, as if How athlete's foot can be checked with the most efficiencythe movie suddenly realizes that it's been too long since the previous action sequence, so there must be another one immediately. An example of this desperateness is when Number One lost in the seamy side of Seattle, where he meets up with a hooker and is taken back to her place, not knowing anything about what she does. (Strangely, the potential humor this scene has is not exploited in the least.) It's all an excuse for her pimps to get the wrong impression about this guy, leading to a fight sequence. Shortly afterwards, Number One is reunited with Jake, and they continue where they left off. This kind of forced action is yet another consequence of the script barely having any story; part of what makes a good action movie is having the action coming out of characters making decisions that have at least some consequence to the main story. In other words, once again Van Damme has picked a bad script... though, for one, he does the very best possible with what he picked, and that's at least something of an improvement.

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See also: Automatic, The Silencers, Terminal Justice

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