by Del Harvey
How do you catch a serial killer? Why, with another serial killer, silly!
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I admit to being an action film junkie. I watch many films that most people would not, because they might star someone like Jean-Claude Van Damme, not known for his thespian talents. In my humble opinion, there are levels of action heroes. At the top there are the likes of Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Chow-Yun Fat, Jackie Chan, and Sylvester Stallone. These are followed by the second-tier action stars, such as Michael Madsen, Wesley Snipes, Kurt Russell, Clint Eastwood, Jet Li, Schwarzenegger, Segal, etc. And then you have the lower-rung group…guys and gals who can’t seem to rise above action films, a certain boxoffice percentage, or going straight to video: Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Mickey Rourke, Gary Busey, etc.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I rent a 2001 Van Damme film that was not only directed by Hong Kong action-meister Ringo Lam and went straight to video, but was actually good. Replicant takes advantage of the current fear of cloning to pit Van Damme against himself (a scenario recently used in Jet Li’s The One and Arnold’s The 6th Day). The difference is, it actually works in this one. Why? Because Van Damme is given very little opportunity to open his mouth. The real star of the film is a supporting actor named Michael Rooker (The Replacement Killers, Eight Men Out, Cliffhanger, Mississippi Burning), a cop who’s been tracking a serial killer nicknamed “The Torch,” because he sets fire to his victims, who are all mothers of little boys. “The Torch” is Van Damme, and the NSA clones him when they find some of his DNA at a crime scene. The NSA wants to try using the clone as a technique in tracking down super-deviants such as “The Torch.” When Riley retires from the force, the NSA offer him a job. Thank goodness, he takes it…or the film would be over right then and there.
Thanks to the fine acting of Rooker and Catherine Dent as his former partner Angie, and by the decision to minimize Van Damme’s dialogue, Ringo Lam has effectively created an American Hong Kong action film. There is a particularly effective scene where the clone is picked up by a hooker (Marnie Alton) who mistakes his strong, silent act for the typical male attitude. When she gets him all worked up then tells him to pay up front, she confuses the guy and calls for help. Her protectors arrive and “Van Damme - The Clone” goes into autopilot, kicking the three assailants down to size. When one of them smacks the hooker, he practically rips the guy’s head off, then gently approaches the girl and caresses her face. There is a brief moment of understanding which passes between the two and which is just the type of thing that is so very commonly found in the Hong Kong action genre.
A similar example is the way in which Rooker’s tough, no-nonsense cop eventually sees beyond the image of the serial killer at the freshly born innocent that is the clone’s character. Their bonding is the type of male to male thing that’s acceptable in Hong Kong, and could be considered “odd” to your typical homophobe.
For all these reasons, and most especially because there is actually a plot and characters, Replicant is a good rental, and redeems Van Damme. At least, for this viewing.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago and is a survivor of Lucasfilm, the Walt Disney Company, and the Directors Guild of America.
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