The Last Mercenary: Damme That’s Good!
In the French action-comedy, The Last Mercenary, Belgian action icon Jean-Claude Van Damme is and isn’t the leading man you think he is. Instead, Van Damme plays Richard “The Mist” Brumere, a legendary soldier of fortune tasked with protecting and exonerating his estranged biological son Archibald, who has been mistaken for Simyon, a Scarface-obsessed armaments dealer, due to a sequence of bizarre events. (Photo from Netflix)
Van Damme was always a good-looking bruiser, sleeker than Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal, the other martial-arts poster boys. He’s 60 today, and we must make the most of the great entertainment he provides us. While he isn’t ancient for an action hero, he’s clearly past his glory days in The Last Mercenary, with a scowl that melts into a smirk, and eyes that don’t so much burn as stare with distemper.
Richard returns to France after learning that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has mistaken Archibald—who was living under an alias and with diplomatic immunity thanks to his father’s deft negotiating skills—for Simyon, a callow arms dealer from the fictional country of Taarghistan. Richard is the only one who can keep Archibald safe long enough to apprehend Simyon and the French officials who have been protecting him from arrest.
As Brumere tries to build a relationship with his son, he uncovers a web of shady government operatives, illegal arms sales, and old grudges from his days as a spy. To restore Archie’s good name and possibly thwart Simyon’s nefarious scheme to destabilise the French Republic, father and son recruit the help of Dalila and her brother Momo and keep one step ahead of the mercenaries attempting to assassinate them. There are a few car chases along the way — The Mist is excellent at driving a car at high speeds from the passenger seat — and a few fistfights, one a theatrical sequence set inside a luxurious spa’s shower area.
The plot moves along slowly and predictably, but that’s beside the point. While the film isn’t exactly a laugh a minute, the jokes land. The supporting cast, particularly Assa Sylla’s no-nonsense pal Dalila and Alban Ivanov’s fumbling, eager bureaucrat Alexandre, is hilarious. Sylla, one of the stars of Céline Sciamma’s renowned Girlhood, is focused, harrowing, and amusing.
Still Kicking…and Laughing
At its best, the action is on the lower rung of Jackie Chan’s extravagant set-piece wackiness. It’s great to see Van Damme still kicking (though it may be a stunt double doing much of that). Van Damme’s screen presence now has an ease and assurance to it that lends itself perfectly to a Zohan-like, supposedly indestructible warrior who gets into crazy situations in readily penetrable disguises. The veteran performer seemed to be having a great time switching from this moustache, to that wig or this clothing, which adds to the amusement of the gags.
This film contains a wide range of gags. Slapstick humor abounds, as a man is forced to ride a scooter through the streets of Paris in only his underwear. There’s wordplay: a character’s name is a running gag, and Van Damme later states, “Killing kills.” There’s some bleak humor in the film: a character’s death is a deadpan performance early on. And, perhaps most importantly, the majority of the film flirts with parody.
While The Last Mercenary has a lot of positive aspects, it also has several flaws. Early on, there’s an incredibly thrilling vehicle chase sequence that raises the standard for the action and comedy, but the film never quite approaches that level of excitement afterwards. Worse, a second comparable moment follows quickly after the first, and it feels excessively long and drawn-out in comparison. In addition, the plot can be challenging to follow at times, and there are a few instances of abrupt shifts that appear to be the consequence of sequences being removed. For example, characters were unexpectedly donning leather coats when they weren’t in the previous scene, and characters appear in a new location for no apparent reason.
The film is entertaining, and the romantic dynamics are sweet. The Last Mercenary has a lot of heart at its foundation, and the overall experience is so enjoyable that you can’t help but desire more. Thankfully, there’s room for a sequel and enough material to work with here. Even if The Last Mercenary 2 is never made, Van Damme will most likely have more opportunities to explore his comedic side in future Hollywood films.
Martial arts movies might not be the most original stories the box office has to offer, but they’re not going anywhere soon. It’s all been done before, and it’ll be done again (Thank goodness!) But one of the best parts in all of this is Jean-Claude Van Damme, The Muscles from Brussels, whose nearly 20-film run, which began with 1988’s Bloodsport, made him a global sensation and commoditized a specific formula. The titles tell the story: Death Warrant, Hard Target, Nowhere to Run, Sudden Death. But perhaps nobody tells the story better than Van Damme.