Action / Adventure, Films, Noir, Recommended posts, Reviews, Suspense / Thriller, USA

Maximum Risk

Stylish neo-noir with surprising depth, courtesy of Ringo Lam kickstarting his work with Jean-Claude Van Damme…

The first of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s three collaborations with Ringo Lam, and yet another dual role for him (he would do so again with Lam in Replicant), Maximum Risk is a gritty and taut thriller. By the mid-90s after a run of hard-hitting action films with predominantly American directors that gave him A-list status, Van Damme started to gravitate towards Hong Kong directors, pulling them into the Hollywood orbit. First, John Woo with Hard Target (1993), then Lam with this in 1996, before a two-film collaboration with Tsui Hark with Double Team (1997) and Knock Off (1998) – with Van Damme likely aware that their understanding and grasp of cinematic action would coexist easily with his considerable physical abilities.

That run of collaborations with Hong Kong directors would, unfortunately, also coincide with Van Damme’s slip into substance abuse issues and with it the loss of his A-list status. It’s a shame, because as 88 Films continue to reissue these films on blu ray, we can see that’s worth reevaluating here, particularly in how they combine the energy and rawness of Hong Kong talent, with a nice touch of Hollywood gloss and budget. They’re reminiscent of a bygone era in Hollywood, when the idea of a mid-budget action film was perfectly acceptable, long before the genre was squeezed from below with VOD and from the top by tentpole blockbusters designed to rake in billions. Whilst many of these Hong Kong/Hollywood crossovers have a feel of compromise between their directors and the corporate conventions of America, they still represent a step up, in terms of pure filmmaking craft, than the vast majority of generic material coming out of ‘90s Hollywood.

For that reason, Maximum Risk is an excellent example of ‘90s genre filmmaking. With a slightly slower pace (more thriller than action), it’s a surprisingly elegant neo-noir with a tough, nasty streak. Van Damme’s dual role here is smaller than elsewhere – he plays long-lost twin brothers separated at birth, one of whom dies in the first scene (in a brutal chase sequence through the narrows streets of the south of France). It’s gradually revealed that the dead twin grew up as a major player in the Russian mafia in New York. The surviving twin, French policeman Alain, usurps his brother’s identity to track down his killers. A preposterous plotline it may be – but Lam plays it straight and manages to make it work. The dual identity plotline gives him plenty of opportunity to luxuriate in mirrors and reflections, as Alain comes to terms with the completely different life his brother led: one brilliantly shot scene has Van Damme’s reactions visible in a character’s glasses.

The film’s exquisite style, lensed by Alexander Gruszynski (whose other credits include Tremors and, uhm, the Tyler Perry Madea films…) is a major part of the appeal. The New York locations are grimy and dirty, drawing on the city’s long history of noir cinema. Maximum Risk is not an action extravaganza along the lines of what Woo or Hark would do with Van Damme. But when it does tip into action, it is physical, close-up, and brutal. Most of the fight scenes take place in enclosed spaces and yet there’s a sense of clarity to the space and framing to the combat (none of the shaky-cam that would poison Hollywood action in the years to come). Two particular scenes, with a reappearing blonde henchman (Stefanos Miltsakakis, a regular in Van Damme’s work) are exemplary – a wrestling showcase in Russian bathhouse (harking forward to Eastern Promises, though this time the towels miraculously stay on, sorry folks), and a finale in an elevator. In spite of all the visual limitations of a spare, stripped back fight in such a tiny space, Lam keeps finding new perspectives, new visual ideas, new editing tricks within the scene. It’s nearly a perfectly enclosed film in and of itself, so elegant is the scene’s sense of narrative ebb and flow.

Elsewhere, there are a few minor flaws. As sympathetic as this writer is to Van Damme’s acting capabilities, he does struggles with the more dramatic elements when the script asks him to get introspective. That said, his performance is serviceable rather than actually bad – and the same goes for the romantic interest Natasha Henstridge (most recognisable from Species), doing her best with an underdeveloped character. But nobody turns up to a Van Damme film looking for credible drama. They do what they have to do to keep the plot moving.

Courtesy of Lam’s brilliance in the action sequences, as well as a sharp visual eye bringing a shade of hard-boiled poetry to the film’s themes of fate and dual identities, Maximum Risk elevates standard genre material into something thoroughly entertaining and effective, with just enough smarts to give it some substance. A worthwhile reissue.

Maximum Risk is available on UK Blu-ray now from 88 Films.

Home media details

Distributor: 88 Films (UK)

Edition: Blu-ray (2021)

Excellent transfer quality from 88 Films, as always (really bringing out the grime of the film’s New York locations). Other extras include an A3 poster and a booklet essay (Wham-Bam Thank you Van Damme, Maximum Risk, Maximum Reward by James Oliver), but the informative commentary with video game producer and Van Damme expert Audi Sorlie is a sobering and intelligent analysis of Van Damme’s role in bringing Hong Kong’s best action directors to the States.

About the author

Fedor TotFedor Tot Fedor Tot
Fedor Tot is a freelance film critic and editor, born in the former Yugoslavia, raised in Wales. He specialises in film history, particularly the cinema of the former Yugoslavia (and will bite your arm off talking about it), but he's fairly omnivorous when it comes to film - Hong Kong action, South Korean crime, and Japenese drama are all fair game. Other bylines include Calvert Journal, Bright Wall/Dark Room and BFI Network.
Read all posts by Fedor Tot

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