Film discussion

Throwback 20: Maximum Risk

The year is 1996 and Ringo Lam, Hong Kong’s second-biggest director of its famed Heroic Bloodshed era of glory and gore, had arrived in the USA to team up with Jean-Claude Van Damme – if audiences were expecting a spectacle of roundhouse kicks from Hong Kong to New York City, then they were in for a shock.

Maximum Risk is another presentation of two Jean-Claude Van Damme characters – one assumingly bad, one good. The “assumingly bad” is listed first because he is the first to appear on screen, though only for the opening few minutes, as he is accidently killed whilst on the run from a pair of FBI agents – Agent Pellman and Agent Loomis, played by Paul Ben-Victor (appeared in The Wire) and Frank Senger (appeared in Leon: The Professional) respectively.

The death of the former JCVD character, Mikhail Suverov, opens the door for the latter (and “good”) JCVD character, Alain Moreau. Mikhail and Alain are identical twins, but of course, they were separated at a young age, where the former was taken in by Russian mobsters, whilst the latter became a cop in France. Importantly, it is Alain’s police partner, Sebastien (Jean-Hugues Anglade – appeared in Killing Zoe) who discovers the dead Mikhail, mistaking him for Alain, thus informing the actual Alain of the situation, whilst at the funeral of a fellow police officer.

As a good-hearted, but curious individual, Alain travels to NYC to discover the truth about his identical twin. Whilst in NYC, however, Alain is mistaken for Mikhail – by both urban locals and the FBI agents earlier in the film – but he also, at times, poses as Mikhail, and to a minor extent in one scene, loses grasp of his real identity. The quest for the truth leads Alain into the path of a Russian mob and the previously-mentioned FBI agents, though both outlets are filled with corruption. High up in the ranks of the mob and the main antagonist in Maximum Risk is Ivan Dzasokhov, played by Zach Grenier – appeared in Fight Club. On this dangerous path though, Alain comes into contact with Mikhail’s now-former girlfriend, Alex Bartlett (Natasha Henstridge – appeared in Species), and of course, she mistakes Alain for Mikhail…

Maximum Risk poses two overwhelming negatives: another presentation of JCVD in a duel-role; and the outdated presentation of the Russians as the antagonists. The previous duel-role JCVD film was 1991’s Double Impact, though also in 1994’s Timecop, two JCVD characters from different years appear in the same scene, however, in Double Impact, audiences were presented with the concept of two JCVDs – one good, one bad, unknown to each other etc, so fast-forward to 1996, and the presentation of JCVD in a duel-role was far from fresh.

Regarding Russian antagonists, Maximum Risk was released five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and conclusion of the Cold War, so why were the baddies Russian? The likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rocky IV (1985), Rambo III (1988), and Red Heat (1988) possessed Russian antagonists, because it was culturally relevant to American audiences at the time. 1996 though? A very cheap and outdated decision from the writers of Maximum Risk.

Stylistically, Maximum Risk wasn’t a completely successful replication of Ringo Lam’s filmmaking from Hong Kong – essentially, the content that made him aware to American audiences, especially Quentin Tarantino, who found influence from City on Fire (1987) when making Reservoir Dogs (1992). Lam, as seen in his ‘On Fire’ films in Hong Kong, had a tendency of presenting all-out action chaos in the last 20 minutes or so.

In Maximum Risk, the plot strides into pure action and chaos that wasn’t present earlier in the film, however, the wild excessiveness as seen in the ‘On Fire’ films is far from present in Maximum Risk’s concluding 20 minutes – thus its action conclusion looked no different to other mainstream action films of the time. Furthermore, like in John Woo’s films, the philosophical yin and yang was present also in Lam’s Hong Kong films, but sadly for fans of Chinese philosophy, yin and yang was not present in Maximum Risk, and thus another key trait was missing from Lam’s American transition.

Lam’s lack of a successful replication in the US results in fandom disappointment, and that was far from the only disappointment as JCVD is somewhat toned-down in Maximum Risk – he’s more acting, than action. Maximum Risk was not a typical JCVD vehicle of the time. Of course, JCVD does fight in the film, and the moves are impressively shot, but he’s far from all-out action, and sadly, JCVD’s USP of martial arts was rarely exposed in comparison to his preceding and peak work. An example of a missed opportunity would be when JCVD kills a Russian in an elevator by stabbing him with a knife – basically, any lead character in an action film can do that, so what sets apart JCVD from his competition in the action genre?

Critically at the time, Maximum Risk was subject to mixed reactions – especially regarding the acting of JCVD. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times was convinced that JCVD, “does some of his best acting yet,”, whilst on the other hand, Peter Stack’s SFGATE review article of Maximum Risk was (harshly?) titled, “Van Damme Tries to Act and Fails.”

Ultimately, Maximum Risk is far from being an elite action film of the 1990s, and it is nowhere near the peak of JCVD or Lam, but as an action-crime film, it is very watchable. Maximum Risk certainly is an essential viewing for fans of JCVD or Lam, though it is probably more of a curiosity view, just to see if a renowned director can be a hit in an American cinema of which he had an influence on.

Are you a fan of Maximum Risk or old-school Jean Claude-Van Damme? Let us know!

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