Of the popular action stars of the 1980s and 1990s, Jean-Claude Van Damme managed to develop better-than-average features by working with strong directors. Along with American filmmakers such as Peter Hyams in Timecop (1994) and Sudden Death (1995), and John G. Avildsen in Inferno (1999), he also collaborated with Hong Kong’s finest action directors in a series of 1990s films. They often represented his most interesting work, whether in John Woo’s Hard Target (1993), or Tsui Hark’s Double Team (1997) and Knock Off (1998), as well as in Maximum Risk (1996) – the first of four American films by director Ringo Lam.
Maximum Risk casts Van Damme as French police officer Alain Moreau, who discovers he has a hitherto-unknown twin on the same day that his twin also dies. Moreau assumes his brother’s identity to uncover what led to his death, and finds himself in New York and on the run with a mysterious woman (Natasha Henstridge) from the Russian mafia.
Here is my take on Van Damme. He is not an accomplished actor, but he handles physical action well and in the 1990s at least he picked and chose rock-solid directors with whom to work. Contrast this with, say, Steven Seagal: also a rather unconvincing actor but also one less interested in with whom he worked. This is not meant as a sign of disrespect to those filmmakers, but rather an observation that Lam, Hark, Woo, and Hyams laid up against the likes of Stuart Baird, John Gray, Geoff Murphy, and Andrzej Bartkowiak is a relatively one-sided content. We will ignore Van Damme’s middling attempt at directing himself in The Quest (1995), as well as Seagal’s own effort in On Deadly Ground (1994).
Van Damme is solid in Maximum Risk, on Van Damme’s terms, and delivers some excellent individual action scenes. Hark, freed from the limitations of a Hong Kong production budget, seems particularly keen on filling the film with as many car chases as possible. They are well shot and remarkably tense. The best action scene is arguably held back for the climax, and involves a physical fight in an elevator.
The action is the drawcard, as it is unlikely to be the screenplay. Credited to industry stalwart Larry Ferguson (The Hunt for Red October) it is high on function but low on charisma. No individual character stands out, despite some enthusiastic work by Natasha Henstridge and Zach Grenier, as well as a surprising extended cameo by French star Jean-Hugues Anglade.
There is always a place for this kind of unpretentious, functional action cinema. It is traditionally bait for mainstream film critics who view every film from the same cinéaste point of view, who rarely hesitate to take a sledgehammer to this kind of lowest-common-denominator fare. There is no shame in watching these films; indeed there is a level of easy entertainment one is not going to find in more ‘elevated’ works. You could call it a ‘guilty pleasure’, except of course no one should ever feel guilty for enjoying what they like. I rather like Jean-Claude Van Damme as an action hero. I enjoy watching him in his better films. This is absolutely one of them.