Those films smuggled in enough of the aggro-action amplification popularized by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp output alongside the caustic comic commodities of Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson. Although not an official EuropaCorp production, Mercenary occasionally benefits from the visual pop of Besson’s longtime cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast. And it certainly believes that it’s very funny, turning over what feels like eons to French comic actor Alban Ivanov for tubby-guy-in-tighty-whities gags and mangled-tongue gibberish. It’s just severe overconfidence for a dreadfully boring attempt to (again) revive 60-year-old Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career.
Yes, the Muscles from Brussels are now sexagenarian. Van Damme’s temple squiggle has receded into wrinkles. Once a prominent protrusion, his right-forehead knot has been folded into his furrowed brow. And while Mercenary supplants Replicant for the best Van Damme wig game — from the Rambo III-aping mullet in a flashback to an assortment of pool-boy bleach jobs, driving instructor mutton chops and, yes, even the flowing locks of a female escort— it’s all clumsy cover for scrawny-armed stunt doubles bearing no resemblance to Van Damme’s definition.
The many references to past JCVD triumphs like Kickboxer, Timecop and, most garishly, Bloodsport don’t help. Even though this film isn’t much fun, at least Van Damme seems to be having a good time. His mugging is maximal, and there’s at least one nutpunchapalooza inside a locker room that evokes the star’s classic appeal. It’s also clearly Van Damme for a majority of the film’s best sequence. Perhaps he expended all of his physical energy on it and had little left.
Van Damme plays Richard Brumère, aka The Mist — a French secret agent in the middle of a major mission when he learns he has become a father. To protect himself, his newborn son, the birth mother and the very security of France, Richard and his handlers agree: They’ll put the baby and the mother into hiding, and Richard will separately go off the grid as well.
Flash-forward a quarter-century or so, and there are two Archibald Al-Mahmouds in the system — one a rich, violent Scarface-emulating eccentric (Nassim Lyes) and “Archie” (Samir Decazza), a milquetoast middle-class kid trying to make do however he can. When an overly ambitious and fastidious bureaucrat (Ivanov) digs into a discrepancy between the two names, it triggers an attempted hit on Archie and a series of events that draws Richard out of hiding.
Ostensibly, Richard is trying to foil a conspiracy and keep a super-sized EMP called the Big Mac from falling into the wrong hands. (Pulp Fiction fans rejoice, for you hear “le Big Mac” all the time.) But maybe Richard also will reconcile with whichever Archibald turns out to be his son … and no points for guessing which one of the two it is!
A paltry parcel of minor laughs pop through, such as the timestamp on the most recent photograph of Richard, the paternalistic pride he derives from teaching one Archibald to drive during a woolly car chase, or the lunacy of Richard’s immaculate vocal imitations over the phone. There’s a pleasantly multicultural melange to the motley crew of colleagues Richard picks up over the film’s course. Although there are too many misplaced mea culpas for Richard’s absence in Archibald’s life, Van Damme sells a great line in an otherwise anonymous script: “You’ll always be my most precious scar.” And again, the wigs are hilarious.
But director / co-writer David Charhon and co-writer / co-star Ismaël Sy Savané bury the buoyancy beneath so much bloat. The second half is salvaged from utter disaster, but there’s still a useless last-minute twist abetted by some annoyingly casual racism to boot. The film also is hampered by some laughably limited budgetary restrictions; one major explosion is dramatized by flashing lights, dry ice and a few falling pebbles. Another problem: The filmmakers have an eye on, let’s say, The Next-to-Last Mercenary rather than the movie at hand. Sadly, The Last Mercenary is among the last JCVD films you’d ever want to watch.