The Last Mercenary isn’t much as a JCVD actioner, but it’s modestly held together by the aging star’s pronounced comedic chops.
Legendary action figure Jean-Claude Van Damme has done quite a relentless rehab on his screen persona over the last decade, moving from the on-set troublemaker and alleged egomaniac we saw in a string of ’90s hits, to a long stint in DTV junk movie hell, and finally to redeemed genre elder statesman. The sleek handsomeness of his youth has been replaced with an older gentleman’s gravity, and he’s become quite the accomplished actor in introspective and weird works like JCVD (both the movie and the series, two very disparate but fascinating things) and The Bouncer.
His latest effort, the jaunty, silly action comedy The Last Mercenary, takes full advantage of all of that implied legacy and gives Van Damme a chance to show off his mostly underused comedic chops. He’s better than the material, but he also elevates it beyond something that wouldn’t really have a reason to exist without a star like him at its center. He plays Richard, a famous and deadly secret agent code-named “The Mist,” who went underground decades ago after a mission gone wrong, leaving behind an infant son for whom he demands a monthly stipend from the French government for life. When a bumbling functionary accidentally cuts off the money and blows the now-adult son Archibald’s (Samir Decazza) cover, some very bad guys come after him and force The Mist to come out of hiding.
It’s all very stupid, to say the least, but Van Damme’s comic timing keeps things quite charming, and there’s also a game supporting cast that includes Miou-Miou as an old espionage colleague and Valérie Kaprisky as a shady government minister. Director David Charhon appears to have taken a page from early Luc Besson, constantly cutting away for non-sequitur gags, keeping the camera moving, and packing his frames with mugging faces. The action is surprisingly adept although mostly played for laughs, with a mid-movie car chase that does a good job of maintaining geography and using a lot of minor practical stunts, all while intercutting with the character’s joke dialogue. At its best, the film is reminiscent of Phillipe de Broca’s late ’70s work with Belmondo, films like Le Magnifique or Le Animal, playing off a star’s persona and making him into a cartoon character at the same time (Van Damme, with his leather jackets and leather face, can’t help but look an awful lot like older Belmondo). What’s ultimately disappointing, then, is that the film’s aged star seems to be making copious use of stunt doubles in his fight scenes, but hey, at least the splits still look good.
You can currently stream David Charhon’s The Last Mercenary on Netflix.