Monday, August 27, 2012

Film Review: THE QUEST (1996, Jean-Claude Van Damme)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Jean-Claude Van Damme, Roger Moore (LIVE AND LET DIE, MOONRAKER), James Remar (THE WARRIORS, DEXTER, RENT-A-COP, 48 HRS.), Janet Gunn (SILK STALKINGS, CARNOSAUR 3), Jack McGee (BASIC INSTINCT, COOL AS ICE, THE FIGHTER), Aki Aleong (V: THE SERIES, FAREWELL TO THE KING), Ong Soo Han (KICKBOXER, BLOODSPORT 2), Abdel Qissi (LIONHEART, THE ORDER).  Story co-written by Frank Dux (supposedly BLOODSPORT is based on his life story).  Music by Randy Edelman (TWINS, KINDERGARTEN COP, V.I. WARSHAWSKI).  Cinematography by David Gribble (NOWHERE TO RUN, RUNNING ON EMPTY).
Tag-line: "Go the distance!"
Best one-liner:  "Hey clown boy! Get off my street!"

I guess this ended up being the "Summer of Van Damme" here at Junta Juleil.  I certainly never planned it that way, but I suppose some of the finest journeys, the finest quests in life are utterly spontaneous... and punctuated by prayers to Buddha and JCVD 'sad-eye.'

Where to begin with THE QUEST?  Van Damme stars, co-wrote, and– take a deep breath– directs. The result is basically BLOODSPORT meets WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY meets OLIVER TWIST meets INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.  It is the tale of Christopher Dubois, who dreams of going to the Lost City and competing in the international fighting tournament called the Kumite 'Ghang-gheng' in order to win the fabled Golden Dragon and save an army of street urchins.  As he fights for his golden-ticket invitation, he befriends an array of assorted buddies, including con artist and pirate-man Roger Moore, washed-up heavyweight James Remar, moxie-filled reporter Janet Gunn, and sad-sack comic relief henchman Jack McGee.  In addition to being one of the finest films 1996 had to offer, it enchanted near-empty theaters, provided us with a poster whereupon JCVD can gaze across an endless expanse and into our very soul, and drove a rift between Jean-Claude and his friend Frank Dux (the supposed real-life inspiration for BLOODSPORT who claimed that it plagiarized his script THE KUMITE).  But that's not all: I'm about to crack open this dusty, leather-bound volume and shed some light on about fifteen reasons why THE QUEST is still a journey worth taking.

#15.  Jean-Claude Old Manne.

Yup, the hurried frame story briefly entreats us to an elderly Jean-Claude who beats up on a gang of multi-racial thugs (even employing some old man cane action) before we journey off on our titular...  QUEST.

#14.  There are no (true) splits, but that's okay.

There's a lot going on in this film.  True splits may have distracted viewers from the multi-layered plotting, or even worse, been buried amid zeppelin theft and kilted low-blows.  And besides, we get some pretty good extension during this particular mid-air kick.  

#13.  Jesus-Claude Van Bondage.

 "I'm sure the sharks will enjoy... you."  -Actual line of dialogue

It's not as overt as in CYBORG, but I don't see how it could be:

Amid the splits, the accent, the moxie-filled reporter girlfriends, the flexed right-side biceps, and the ass-cheek nudity, this Van Damme trope is often forgotten.  I shall not let you forget it.  Only Mel Gibson is tied up and tortured (á la the New Testament) more frequently.

#12.  He was trying for Oscar gold.

At a certain point, when we veer–ever so briefly– into Merchant-Ivory territory, I realized that Van Damme believed THE QUEST had a shot at the Academy Awards.  What is pictured above is Edwardian-era kiddie-orphan JCVD as a woman in black balls up (in slowed-frame rate bad slomo) an important letter in a plot detail that is never really returned to.  I love it.  Also, I must admit in all seriousness, that this is more deserving than the typical Oscar bait.  I mean, if THE ENGLISH PATIENT hadn't co-starred Willem Dafoe, this might have had a shot.  I mean, movies like INDEPENDENCE DAY and THE FIRST WIVES CLUB and DAYLIGHT and EVITA and ERASER were getting nominated that year.

#11.  Van Damme is trained on "Muay Thai Island."  Aficionados of martial arts and/or KICKBOXER will recognize the ridiculousness inherent in that statement.  It'd be like training on Kumite Boulevard or Kung Fu Alley or Karate Mountain.  Though I have to admit that those would likely be tremendous resume-builders. 
Supposedly there may or may not be a real Muay Thai island, but being too lazy to do any serious research, my gut tells me that it is a group of deluded people forever chasin' the tiger that is THE QUEST.

#10.  Abdel Qissi.

Every fighting tournament movie needs a baddie.  Here's it's the "Mongolian" fighter, played by Moroccan badass Abdel Qissi.  Here, he kinda looks like a croozin' Mongolian leather daddy.  Quick– name a famous Mongolian!  I'll give ya a second.


Alright, so my apologies if you picked Sukhbaatar or Subedei, but you probably said either Kublai or Genghis Khan.  Now, what do you suppose "The Mongolian" is called here?  It's "Khan," because anything else would simply have defeated that STREET FIGHTER 2 logic that we all know and love, and we couldn't have that.  Anyway, you may recognize him as the brother of Michel Qissi, who played "Tong Po," the primary villain of KICKBOXER.  Combined, the Qissi brothers have appeared in five Van Damme movies, which is a fun fact you can share with your friends next time you're watching LIONHEART.

Also, he gets a wonderful moment where he wipes (in slow motion) a cascading waterfall of sweat from a single eyebrow.

It's visual poetry worthy of Terrence Malick, who incidentally is a big fan of the Kumite (see #3).

#9.  Ong Soo Han!

Yes, the primary antagonist and shit-eating-grin master of 1996's BLOODSPORT 2 is competing in the Ghang-gheng.  He loses rather quickly and ignominiously, and you hardly even realize he's there, but, hell,  he still got to have a banner year in '96, and nobody can take BLOODSPORT 2 away from him.  I hold you in my heart, Ong Soo Han.

#8.  Stereotypes, stereotypes, stereotypes!
From ENTER THE DRAGON to BLOODSPORT to STREET FIGHTER to SATURDAY NIGHT SLAM MASTERS, fictionalized international fighting tournaments have relied heavily on ethnic and national stereotypes to fuel their particular fires.  Pictured above is the Spanish contender, who naturally fights in a "Flamenco" style and a ruffled shirt.  Now, what do you suppose the odds are that the Japanese contender is a Sumo wrestler?  Or that the German contender arrives in a zeppelin?  Or that the Scottish contender wears a kilt?  That Brazil's entrant is a capoeira master who looks like he crawled out of the rainforest ten minutes ago?  Well, the odds are damned high because all of that stuff happens.  Also, despite every country getting their own fighter, all of Africa gets only one man to represent them.  And his costume is nearly as tasteful as you'd imagine.  Either Sarah Palin is coordinating the Ghang-gheng's geography committee, or the wondrous shadow of Golan-Globus is simply inescapable.  On a similar note:

#7.  The Scotsman felled by a low-blow.  This is just one of a thousand of those rapid-fire absurdities that season your usual JCVD flick.  I only mention this one in particular so that I can continue to be the web's leading authority on brutal ball-squeezing.

And you gotta love the super-enthusiastic Scotch fan in a goddamned Tam o' Shanter who emits a horrified "Ooooooh!" when it happens.

#6.  Roger Moore is ridiculous.

I guess I haven't seen him in anything since I was a kid, and I always thought he was a kind of a bland James Bond in comparison to Sean Connery.  Obviously, I have some revisiting to do.

He's smarmy, he's sleazy, he's out of control.  At one point he sells Jean-Claude Van Damme into slavery.  Just think about that for a minute.  He's probably delivering the most self-aware performance in this film, but his British snottery reaches such stupendous levels that it his self-awareness actually amplifies the quality of his performance.  I'm also having a hard time imagining JCVD taking him aside and critiquing the nuances of his work.  Also, on a continued Roger Moore note:

#5.  Roger Moore Zeppelin/Lost City/Golden Dragon/Rube Goldberg theft.

As Junta Juleil regular Mike B. wrote previously,  THE QUEST is "a Van Damme film where Roger Moore steals treasure with a blimp, and yet that's only like the 5th most bizarre thing that happens."

I don't really have too much to add to that, other than that I really appreciate the Snidely Whiplash heights of glee that he achieves while doing it.

#4.  Jean-Clown Van Damme.

 "Hey, clown boy!  Get off my street!" says the evil gangster who just doesn't understand.  If he only knew how many mouths to feed Jean-Clown Van Damme had.  You see, he made a promise to an army of street urchins.  He's like Fagin, but with the personality of Mother Teresa.  And the leg extension of Jean-Claude Van Damme.

So the whole point of the movie is ostensibly that he fights in the Ghang-gheng to earn money to save the army of street urchins, but their fate is totally glossed over at the end.  After the tournament we quickly cut back to Jean-Claude Old Manne, who mumbles something about saving the kids before we cut to the credits.  How exactly did you save them?  Are you supposed to be an unreliable narrator?  Maybe that's the genius of THE QUEST– all these unanswered questions.  It really gets 'ya thinking.   

 Also, did I mention that he gets to kick some ass... IN STILTS?!


#3.  James Remar, Cheer Leader.

James Remar's Maxie Devine is initially a mild antagonist

 who becomes a Ghang-gheng buddy on par with Jackson in BLOODSPORT.

On the SAT analogy section it would go something like this: 


So keep your eyes peeled for that question, kiddies.

Anyway, he realizes that Van Damme represents the new generation, and that he should step aside so he can have his shot

 and so spends the majority of the movie on the sidelines.  But does he waste his time there?  Hell, no!  He's James goddamned Remar

He gets a lot of great, subtle lines like "NEW YORK CITY!!!,"  "GET UP....GETTTT UPPPP!!!," and "YEAH!  YEAHHHHHHH!!!"  Did I mention that this movie is wonderful?

#2.  The return of 'earnest Van Damme grin!'

Last glimpsed in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER:

It's good to have 'ya back, 'earnest Van Damme grin.'  You possess such a childish sincerity that it almost makes me forget that James Remar is livin' large off to the left and Roger Moore is feigning happiness in return for a paycheck.

I don't think any of the 80s and 90s action greats are quite so sincere as Van Damme.  Bronson certainly is, but it's impossible to pigeonhole him to those decades.  Schwarzenegger occasionally is, but that doesn't quite count.  Look at that smile.  If the hopes and dreams of every human being rested on the sincerity of that smile, we'd all be livin' on Sugar Candy Mountain (or at least Kumite Boulevard) without a care in the world.  Alas.

#1.  Baffling Nipple Adjustment.  AKA, Senseless Nipple Tweaking.

After one of Van Damme's Muay Thai buddies is killed in the ring (yes, at least one person has to be killed in the ring in every fighting tournament movie), Van Damme storms the stage.  He whips Khan around, smacks him in the jiggling man-teat, and stares deeply into his eyes. 


Even better than the fact that this bizarro thing actually happened is the idea that JCVD was not only doing it, but then taking a step back, grabbing his megaphone, and directing the damn thing.  Was he adjusting the levels of sweat seepage and eye-lock intensity?  Was he demanding more takes than Stanley Kubrick?  Was he rehearsing and improvising as much as Mike Leigh?  Was he demanding attention to detail worthy of Erich von Stroheim?  Ah, to be a fly on the wall.

Four stars. 


Anonymous said...

Oh yes indeed! I was getting worried when I saw no new posts for a while, but now it makes sense, as one truly needs time to appropriately immerse themselves in the breathtaking majesty of "The Quest!" As much as I've tried to make sense of this gem myself, I never described it as well as you did here as "Merchant Ivory meets Street Fighter 2." I'm going to make sure to use that line in all my future conversations about "The Quest" (and believe me, I can find a way to steer any conversation to the topic of Van Dammage!). Thanks also for reminding me that they actually had a Muay Thai Island, which is so unintentionally hilarious that I think I unintentionally just started accepting it at face value. I don't really have anything else to add, other than thanks for taking the time to write this one up. And I would definitely recommend the Moore Bond films, as he does the wink-wink self-awareness stuff so, so well. "Live and Let Die" in particular has the ability to be an absolute blast to watch while simultaneously being stupefyingly stereotypical (the only black Bond villain in the series is both a Harlem drug kingpin--who owns a restaurant called "Fillet of Soul," no kidding--AND a voodoo-practicing Caribbean dictator at the same time!). All of the Moore Bond films are a blast, really. I don't even hate "Moonraker" anymore, despite the fact that they put Bond in freakin' space! Well, I got off on a tangent there, but thanks again for another great review. Carry on!

J.D. said...

So is this Van Damme's CITIZEN KANE? A highly personal passion project? The culmination of years of action films that led up to this cinematic gem? I don't know but it is a pretty crazy movie, even by Van Damme standards and that's saying something.

I love how James Remar refused to phone it in, even in a film like this he still commits a 100%. You gotta love that.

Sean Gill said...


Glad you enjoyed! And I do wish that Merchant-Ivory Productions and Capcom video games could find more common ground than just in THE QUEST. Maybe somebody can fuse together Henry James and SATURDAY NIGHT SLAM MASTERS? I think Van Damme'd be the man to do it.

I saw most of the Moore Bonds when I was a kid– I remember MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN being my favorite. But it's definitely time for a revisit– I think LIVE AND LET DIE may be the place to begin.


Maybe with all the globe-trotting, bizarre occurrences, and box office disappointment, we'll call it Van Damme's... MR. ARKADIN?
And spot-on with Remar's refusal to phone it in; the man is never less than committed.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

Sean Gill said...

You're very welcome, anon.!

Wes said...

This is a wonderful review which inspired me to watch the film, and I figured out why he brushes Khan's man-breast! He's wiping the blood of the dead fighter on him. You can barely see it in fourth screenshot you posted, but because of Khan's skin tone and because the fake blood in the film is unusually thin it's very difficult to see. Thought you'd like to know!

Sean Gill said...


Glad you enjoyed– and thank you for the eagle eye; that makes more sense than just a random nipple swipe!