Archive for January, 2008

Replicant

Posted in Science Fiction on January 2, 2008 by michaelaworrall

Replicant
(2001, 1:85, Ringo Lam)
*** – Recommended, a strong film

Poor Jean Claude van Damme. He struggled and climbed his way out of hack-work Cannon kickboxer films to work with the cream of the crop of Hong Kong action directors, which yielded three extraordinary but underappreciated action films; “Maximum Risk”, “Double Team”, and “Knock Off.” The last film, “Knock Off,” was dumped by the studio with no support and Van Damme’s next film, “Legionnaire,” an ambitious and entertaining homage to 20’s and 30’s adventure/romance films, went straight to video. Add to that another straight to video release, “Desert Heart”, and a theatrical release of the sequel to “Universal Solider” that, according to a studio executive, tanked at the box office, and Van Damme has now found himself in the straight-to-video/cable hell of long spent (box office wise) action performers. I cannot attest to the virtues of “Desert Heart”, but “Replicant”, Van Damme’s continuing work with director Ringo Lam (Maximum Risk), is a film that deserves a better fate than a premiere on a video shelf. Though the storyline of the film once again concerns itself with Van Damme and a doppelganger (what is his obsession with that?), what makes “Replicant” more interesting and watchable than, say, “Double Impact”, is the use of Van Damme’s screen persona and Lam’s tight direction.

“Replicant” begins with Van Damme as an elusive and meticulous serial killer who, in leaving some hair follicles at the scene of the crime, inadvertently plants the seed for his own capture. Long frustrated and baffled with trying to catch the killer, the police give the follicle to a top secret and technologically advanced security agency for cloning. Cloning, the agency hopes to prove, will produce a double that will share the same thought-patterns as the killer and therefore allow them to easily track him down, not to mention giving the agency a large share of the market in man-hunting. Yet rather than being born with the full mental capacity of the killer, the clone is literally an infant in an adult body. Hired to extract information on the killer’s whereabouts from the clone is a retired detective, played with utterly annoying but effective macho sadism by Michael Rooker, who has been tracking the killer for years.

The bulk of the film focuses on the relationship between the clone and detective, and while it would be easy to make the film an action buddy movie with a sci-fi twist, Van Damme and company aspire to make it more. I, for one, have always liked Van Damme’’s screen persona: he always appears to be a reluctant hero, who must mask his pouty face and sad eyes with a he-man’s veneer. Out of all the current action film performers—Segal, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, etc.—he is the most open to letting his body be eroticized for both female and male viewers—Van Damme has acknowledged his gay audiences in various interviews—and like his persona, his body alternates between a hard weapon and a gentle embrace. As the clone in “Replicant”, Van Damme is at his most vulnerable and sympathetic, a literal man-child who is born into a world of violence and ruthless determination. The clone is everything the killer is not—trusting, protective, and able to empathize. As both the killer and the clone, Van Damme is a duality of masculinity, a sci-fi Jeckyll and Hyde.

These undercurrents of masculine duality also appear in the relation between the detective and the killer, for the detective is just as brutal and self-obsessed. His treatment towards the clone is sadistic and contemptuous, like that of a father venting out his frustrations on a guiltless son. Ironically, as the clone becomes closer to identifying with the killer, the detective is able to humanize the replicant. The male psyche shifts from destructive to nurturing in the film and hovering over these shifts is a sense of fear that the detective’s abusive and bullying behavior will push the clone into madness and produce another killer.

Ringo Lam directs all of this with a solid and sure hand, proving again that he is a capable, if not original, director of clean action and effective drama. While Lam’s sober approach can be problematic in his work, here it helps realize the material’s ruminations on the duality of masculinity without making the whole premise seem silly. Lam utterly fails, however, when he tries a jokey or satirical jab—such as when the detective’s mother finds him in the bathroom with the replicant handcuffed to the toilet. The homoerotic aspect of this situation is tossed off with a few clumsy lines of dialogue. Though Lam shies away from expanding the material into a deeper examination of masculinity, he never dumbs down the material into a routine action flick.

Jean Claude Van Damme has been trying to push his screen persona and vehicles into new territories, and while he has limitations as an actor –his turn as a serial killer is just as ill-conceived as Keanu Reeves’ in “The Watcher” — his attempts to deliver dynamic films that rework the action genre should be acknowledged. Yet these films are treated like rotten fish by the studios, which throw them to a hostile and cinematically illiterate press and a pacified public.

One of the most dumbfounding viewing experiences was watching the number of people who walked out of the theater during “Knock Off”, a film that delivers non-stop inventive action without being bogged down with romantic sub-plots and character motivation that I guarantee few care about. (“Die Hard” immediately comes to mind.) Yet this is what Van Damme and his career have wrought—an empty theater with “Replicant” only continuing the series of straight-to-video releases.

All in all, it’s a shame that this film will get buried in the previously-viewed bargain bin, while unremarkable or cinematically incoherent studio action films open on 2,000 screens every week.

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