God help me, it is like I have opened Pandora’s box, and all of the Jean-Claude Van Damme action films have started pouring out into my life. I first encountered Van Damme’s work when attending junior high school. At a boarding college of some 300-odd teenagers, there were several films – recorded off the television onto video cassette – that simply lived inside the player on near-constant rotation each weekend. One of those was Mark DiSalle and David Worth’s 1989 martial arts movie Kickboxer, starring Van Damme as aspiring kickboxer Kurt Sloane. It made a fair impression, because I’ve had a secret love for Van Damme ever since. Well, secret until now.
It is worth noting that Van Damme has featured in several properly entertaining films over the years. Hard Target (1993), directed by John Woo, is genuinely great stuff. I have also maintained a healthy affection for Peter Hyam’s Time Cop (1994) and Sudden Death (1995), and Ringo Lam’s Maximum Risk (1996). I have also always enjoyed the execrable Street Fighter (1994), and recently come to adore Tsui Hark’s gleefully silly Knock Off (1998).
It is not that Van Damme is a good actor, because his skills in that regard seem rather limited. It is also not that he is a particularly great martial artist, because in the grand scheme of things there are many performers both more talented and more stylish to watch instead. What I appreciate about Van Damme is the effort: he honestly seems keen to show his audience a good time, and regardless of the script quality or production values he seems to keep earnestly plugging on. Since the 1990s his star has fallen, and barring a few exceptions – he is so much fun in The Expendables 2 (2012) – he has stuck pretty closely to direct-to-video affairs (now direct-to-streaming).
The Order, directed by Lionheart’s Sheldon Lettich, is one of Van Damme’s earlier home video efforts. Released in 2001, it casts the Belgian actor as treasure hunter and international smuggler Rudy Cafmeyer. When his archaeologist father goes missing in Jerusalem Rudy leaps into the hunt, stumbling onto a medieval cult that has been hidden on the fringes of society for centuries. On the run from local police Rudy is aided by fellow thief Yuri (Sasson Gabay), rogue cop Dalia Barr (Sofia Milos), and local history professor Walter Finley (Charlton Heston).
That is not a misprint or a typo: Charlton Heston, legendary Oscar-winning star of Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes, and The Ten Commandments, rounded up his decades-long career playing Jean-Claude Van Damme’s sidekick. It is one of several oddities that make The Order perversely watchable. Heston is not in the film very much, but it does remain his second-to-last film role. His actual last role came two years later, playing Josef Mengele in Rua Alguem 5555: My Father (2003). He died in 2008.
Sofia Milos, later to appear in TV drama CSI: Miami, plays solid support. The film aggressively wants her to work as eye candy: you have never in your life seen a police lieutenant with such unruly hair or so many shirt buttons left undone. Brian Thompson, cult actor from The X-Files, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, makes for a slightly weird villain, but he makes it work.
There is a clear intent on Lettich’s part to direct a breezy action-comedy, drawing plenty of inspiration from Middle-Eastern-set adventure movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Mummy (1999). It is all attempted on a limited budget of course, making The Order wobble tremendously between – sometimes during – the various action set pieces. There are gunfights and car chases, a sword duel and a lost treasure to discover. In one memorable sequence Van Damme dresses up as a Hasidic Jew before fleeing from the police in a back alley foot chase. It is all terrible, but then it is also oddly wonderful. The Order is begging the viewer to have a good time, and honestly the only thing preventing that are personal standards.
The film ends on the promise of a globe-trekking sequel. We never got one.