STUDIO: Sony Pictures
MSRP: $24.96
RUNNING TIME: 101 Minutes

The Pitch

Dirty Harry meets Regarding Henry

The Humans

Jean-Claude van Damme (Universal Soldier), Stephen Rea (V for Vendetta), Selina Giles (Restoration), Mark Dymond (Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God), William Ash (Mad About Mambo)

Yes, Jean-Claude is gonna have to choke a bitch.

The Nutshell

Burnt out and morally compromised New Orleans detective Anthony Stowe (Van Damme) is teetering on the edge of oblivion and couldn’t care less. He botches a sting operation, picks fights, drinks heavily, bangs hookers, shoots heroin, and even parks illegally. But hey, nobody’s perfect, including his wife (Giles), who reveals she’s pregnant by another man (Dymond) and wants a divorce. The only thing keeping Stowe from total collapse is his dogged pursuit of ex-partner turned mobster Callahan (Rea), who’s filling body bags all over town. Eventually Stowe drunkenly stumbles into an ambush, and ends up laid out Mason Storm style for seven months. When he finally awakes he is a changed man determined to right the wrongs he’s committed, namely leaving Callahan alive.

The Lowdown

Like most B-Action heroes Van Damme has had a rough time in the 21st century. It seems like the market for leaping roundhouse kicks just isn’t what it used to be, and there’s a lot of competition from cheap foreign resources like Tony Jaa.

"Hey, that better not be a goddamn Adam’s apple, ’cause I am so over that."

Van Damme appeared ready to join Steven Seagal at the bottom of the DTV garbage heap after 2002’s embarrassingly awful Anniston-free Derailed. However, proving that a good Belgian never gives up without a fight, unless the French leave the back door open, Van Damme rebounded with 2004’s surprisingly slick revenge thriller Wake of Death. Disappointingly he followed that success by sleepwalking through Second in Command‘s by the numbers military rescue and turning in The Hard Corps to the desperate action star’s last resort: the dreaded hip hop crossover.

Thankfully Van Damme serves up another entertaining curveball with Until Death, even though it’s helmed by Second in Command‘s Simon Fellows. Yes, it’s once more back to the split personality well, previously visited in films such as Double Impact and Replicant. We’ve seen him play a despicable scumbag before, but never as the hero. It’s quite amusing to watch the normally clean cut Van Damme stumble around in a self-loathing stupor, looking like a 50s greaser who hasn’t slept in weeks without the company of a bottle. In perhaps his least heroic moment he uses his badge to nail a hooker for free, all while on the way to a date with his wife. His lazy, bleary-eyed coitus is reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s similarly disinterested coupling with Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown.

"What, is 15% a crime now?!  No way that burger was medium rare."

Unfortunately post-coma Van Damme is back to his usual heroic self and not nearly as involving. Instead of shooting smack and banging hookers, he’s picking flowers and remembering his wife’s favorite song. At least one could conveniently blame his broken delivery on intoxication in the first half. Maybe it’s just the hair, but it seems to me he’s starting to resemble Schwarzenegger lately. Lieutenant Governor Van Damme does have a nice ring to it.

Until Death‘s supporting cast may not impress, but nevertheless stands a notch above the DTV norm. To his credit Rea gives it the old college try and makes for a solid villain with a flash of icy wit here and there. When a lunkhead cop threatens him with a rare multi-syllabic word or two he dryly observes, "You’ve acquired a dictionary since we last spoke." His screen time is limited though, and his dialogue uneven.

In Bulgaria, if you’re out of knife range you’re home free.

Also uneven is the plot, which throws out some interesting ideas but doesn’t really develop any of them. Stowe’s embattled relationship with his neglected wife shows potential when she’s forced to watch over him while he recovers from the coma, even though her boyfriend’s already moved in. Actually that sounds like a decent sitcom pilot.

Often the film feels like a string of random events, loosely tied together by the never particularly compelling Stowe/Callahan rivalry. There’s little reason given for their conflict, until the end when Callahan coughs up an ungainly wad of vague exposition.

"Now here’s a little trick I picked up from Minnesota Fats."

Still, the film manages an almost theatrical feeling at times. There’s some brief but nice location shooting in New Orleans. The Bulgarian scenes are much better disguised than in the average Seagal vehicle, with only a couple of tacky sets to give them away. Fellows’ favorite cinematographic flourish seems to be tilting the camera 360 degrees, as memorably employed in the "Even Better than the Real Thing" video, only here with fewer pretentious Irishmen.

While Wake of Death didn’t have enough hand-to-hand combat, the action it did deliver was very nearly big screen quality, especially a rousing motorcycle chase through a shopping mall. Although satisfyingly violent, Until Death doesn’t manage anything as elaborate as a car chase, or any full-blown fistfights. I’m afraid Van Damme’s gone the Seagal route of letting his gun do the talking.

"Move it, move it!  I ain’t sitting in front of no restroom again."

The evil Van Damme’s bullet riddled final stand inside a cheesy diner set generates the most excitement, although it’s limited by the dopey gunmen who orderly file in two at a time to get blasted. Fellows seems to have a hard on for killing major characters with head shots, and who can blame him. It’s too bad the squibs and CGI used are woefully inadequate, more akin to bursting a ketchup packet then launching chunks of brain. Perhaps the military-minded readers would like to dispute the accuracy of Hollywood’s typically explosive visualization of head wounds, but I think we can agree (safeties on please) there’s a time and a place for realism, neither of which are to be found in a Van Damme picture.

Since, let’s be honest, one only watches Van Damme films for the action and unearthly dance moves, Until Death doesn’t quite unseat Wake of Death as king of his DTV portfolio. It is probably his most complete effort so far however, and well worth a rental. Although the fact that the most recent Seagal film contains more asskickings is a bit sobering. Van Damme’s next film, The Shepherd, has an accomplished fight director, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the return of highflying Frank Dux action. I’d welcome back Stowe’s sideburns as well.

"Hey! Old Mother Hubbard went to her cupboard to get her poor dog a bone, and when she bent over, Rover took over…  Whassamatter you heard this one already?"

The Package

The cover features the clean cut Van Damme in the generic action DVD pose, with New Orleans barely visible in the background and some random dude getting capped in the corner. It’s not much but it beats his last two releases. Those of you who prefer the earlier zombie Van Damme design need not fret as it’s featured on the disc and menu.

As for the extras… Please, what extras? This is a Sony DTV. We’re lucky the disc didn’t come in a brown paper bag. Surprisingly there are subtitles, which really should be mandated by law for Van Damme and Seagal flicks.

"Kumi…  AHEM!  Ku-mi-te! My body’s ready, my heart’s on fire…  Man, Seagal is so going down tonight."

Rating 6 out of 10