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'Risk' Lets Van Damme Show Some Depth


At the beginning of the aptly named "Maximum Risk," a solid, fast-moving action-adventure, Jean-Claude Van Damme is running for his life through ancient, narrow streets in a town in the South of France only to wind up dead. How can it be? The picture has barely started and the star has been killed.

We then find none other than Van Damme peering down at his own grave. Aha! Van Damme is playing identical twins. The surviving brother is Alain Moreau, a former French soldier and a great marksman, who learns he had a brother only after the man dies virtually at his doorstep. The twins' mother, played beautifully by veteran French star Stephane Audran, confesses that as a young woman she could not support two children and had an attorney pick out which boy should be put up for adoption.

Alain's twin was adopted by a Soviet diplomat, who named him Mikhail and who took him to New York, where Alain soon learns that Mikhail became a key player in the Russian emigre underworld in Brooklyn's Little Odessa. Alain is of course instantly plunged into great danger, with lots of spectacular chases, martial arts displays and a wide variety of mayhem swiftly following.

Writer Larry Ferguson has come up with some good ideas but, for whatever reasons, they're not all fully developed. By the end of the film, for example, we end up knowing Mikhail better than Alain, who seems to have some need for self-discovery, but it's unclear as to why. There's a certain vagueness to the picture, which is marked by sometimes hazy continuity and a sense of needlessly confusing plotting. ("Maximum Risk," which wasn't screened until Thursday night, clocks in at five minutes shorter than its studio-stated running time.) At any rate, it's best to approach "Maximum Risk" like you would a period kung fu epic or a samurai movie and hope that when good at last triumphs over evil everything becomes clear, which is pretty much the case with "Maximum Risk."

Even so, "Maximum Risk," which marks the American debut of Hong Kong action ace Ringo Lam, is more substantial and rewarding than "Hard Target," which teamed Van Damme with director John Woo in his Hollywood debut. Lam not only handles the bravura action set pieces with ease but also a capable international cast as colorful and varied as the film's many locales, photographed with energy and elegance by Alexander Gruszynski.

Among those making notable impressions are Natasha Henstridge as Mikhail's lovely, gutsy girlfriend; Jean-Hugues Anglade, seen recently in "Nelly and Mr. Arnaud," as a French police detective who is Alain's best friend; and Zach Grenier as Mikhail's jealous gangland nemesis. As for Van Damme, he does some of his best acting yet, involving us in a reflective man we'd like to have known more about but who is convincingly transformed by what he learns of the brother he never knew he had.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, and for some sexuality and language. Times guidelines: The film's violence, although too intense for children, is standard for the martial arts/action genre; both sexuality and language are comparatively mild.


'Maximum Risk'

Jean-Claude Van Damme: Alain/Mikhail

Natasha Henstridge: Alex

Jean-Hugues Anglade: Sebastien

Zach Grenier: Ivan

Stephane Audran: Chantal

A Columbia Pictures presentation. Director Ringo Lam. Producer Moishe Diamant. Co-producer Jason Clark. Executive producer Roger Birnbaum. Screenplay by Larry Ferguson. Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski. Editor Bill Pankow. Action sequence choreographer and stunt coordinator Charles Picerni. Costumes Joseph Porro. Music Robert Folk. Production designer Steven Spence. Set designer Tom Doherty. Set decorator Jaro Dick. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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