With the same grace and discipline that he displays in front of the camera, Jean-Claude Van Damme makes a socko directorial debut with "The Quest," a martial arts adventure odyssey that's epic in scale and high in style.
In co-writing (with Frank Dux) the film's original story, Van Damme and screenwriters Steven Klein and Paul Mones have created engaging starring roles for Van Damme and his co-star, Roger Moore, in his best part since he retired from playing James Bond. Rousing yet touching, "The Quest" is an homage to the fighting skills that have made Van Damme an international star.
Our first glimpse of Van Damme is as an elderly man who drops by an old saloon, probably in Lower Manhattan and clearly familiar to him from the distant past. In come three thugs to hold up the place only to be dispatched in seconds by Van Damme's Chris Dubois, much to the bartender's astonishment. "It all began in Tibet in 1925," Dubois says to explain his fighting skills, triggering a flashback.
We next see the young Chris as a stilt-walking clown, a kind of benevolent Fagin to a bunch of street kids, who latches onto a gangster's cash-stuffed briefcase only to be forced to run for his life, becoming a stowaway on a ship of gun smugglers. He's rescued in Southeast Asia by the debonair, unflappable Lord Dobbs (Moore), who aptly describes himself as "the last of the buccaneers," and his burly sidekick (Jack McGee). Dobbs promises Dubois to help him get back to America, but instead sells him--along with an order of rifles that prove rusty--to Khao (Aki Aleong), who teaches Thai kick-boxing on his island. Six months later Chris is ready to fight in the murky gambling dens of Bangkok.
There he crosses paths again with Dobbs, meets an intrepid reporter (Janet Gunn), the Dempsey/Tunney-like world heavyweight champion (James Remar), and--whoosh!--they're all off for the "Lost City" of Tibet, where the champ and Chris will take part in the fabled Ghan-geng, a martial arts competition that attracts the best fighters in their various styles from all over the world. What attracts Dobbs is the prize, an immense solid gold dragon.
A natural screen storyteller with a clean, sleek style, Van Damme has a clear heartfelt respect that sustains excitement in this lengthy tournament, spiced by Dobbs' skulduggery behind the scenes. One by one, massive exponents of muay Thai, sumo, shotokan karate, shaolin kung-fu, boxing, savate, capoeira, Greco-Roman wrestling and tae kwon do demonstrate their formidable techniques against one another. None is more impressive than the barrel-chested Mongolian, Khan (played by Morocco-born Abdel Oissi, a friend of Van Damme's from childhood in Belgium).
According to Van Damme, "The Quest" cost only $12 million to make, yet it boasts period-perfect production design by Steve Spence, who gives the tournament arena the look of an exotic movie palace of the period. Cinematographer David Gribble captures a wide range of locales and moods gloriously, and Randy Edelman contributes a sweepingly romantic score crucial to catching us up both in Chris' adventure and in his driving search for self-discovery. Van Damme underplays to Moore, ever a twinkle in his eye, whose Dobbs is a charming rascal rather than deep-dyed villain.
Van Damme chose exactly the right era for his story--a time of post-World War I disillusion but when pre-jet age Kiplingesque adventure was still possible. On a personal level, "The Quest" can surely serve as a metaphor for Van Damme's own hard-won career, which now most impressively includes direction.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for adventure violence and martial arts fights. Times guidelines: The film is suitable family entertainment except for the very young.
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Jean-Claude Van Damme: Chris Dubois
Roger Moore: Dobbs
James Remar: Maxie
Janet Gunn: Carrie
Jack McGee: Harry
A Universal presentation of MDP Worldwide production. Director Jean-Claude Van Damme. Producer Moishe Diament. Executive producer Peter MacDonald. Screenplay by Steven Klein and Paul Mones; from a story by Frank Dux and Van Damme. Cinematographer David Gribble. Editors John F. Link, William J. Meshover. Costumes Joseph Porro. Music Randy Edelman. Production designer Steve Spence. Art director Chaiyan (Lek) Chunsuttiwat. Set decorator Kuladee (Gai) Suchatanont. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.