Inexplicably hustling into (limited) theaters this weekend is “Assassination Games,” a hitman actioner the likes of which you’ve seen before. Jean-Claude Van Damme is the big name attached, but the “star” is martial artist Scott Adkins. Together the two cinematic pugilists have been cutting a swath through the world of direct-to-DVD action, though Van Damme has dabbled in the mainstream a bit more as of late. So, to some, this is a momentous match-up.
Adkins plays Roland Flint, a gun-for-hire who once witnessed his wife raped and beaten into a coma by a drug kingpin, one who seems less interested in his trade and more involved in who will bleed the most. He eventually learns that the villain is still on the market, with outside forces eagerly anticipating his downfall. Flint takes up the case motivated entirely by revenge, and in case you think this movie will be a thorough analysis of the aftereffects of revenge, think again: “Assassination Games” exists in that specific movie universe where revenge goes down like warm chicken soup.
Van Damme stars as Brazil, the laconic no-nonsense hitman who also receives the contract on our villain’s head. His morality is a bit harder to figure: Van Damme, who says more when he’s silent than when he attempts English, the deep crevasses on his face suggests a man who has fallen deep into routine. It feels autobiographical. The cash is too much to ignore, and Brazil soon finds himself headed to Bucharest, crossbow in hand. Of course, these two are being pitted against each other, a mysterious third party trying to pull the strings. Somehow, they never figured that our heroes would figure out they’re being manipulated, and after some lengthy fisticuffs, they pool their resources to trap and kill their quarry. To a point, this almost seems unfair: the enemy is a portly, out of shape thug who sends faceless minions into the battlefield. Van Damme still has that wiry physicality and speed, while Adkins, taller and meaner, seems cut from granite. Plus, crossbows.
But “Assassination Games” subverts expectations because it focuses not on the conflict, but on the inner turmoil of these two men. Though their characters unfortunately never rise above genre cliché, the film loads up on quiet moments, such as Brazil practicing the violin, or Flint by his wife’s bedside, allowing the actors to brood and emote. Flint is the more broken of the two, fueled by anger, and Adkins has a cruel Tom Buchanan-esque beauty to his physicality. Van Damme seems the most dead inside -- a subplot where he saves a local prostitute from her abusive pimp forces him to raise his fist, but not his voice. Again, he’s done this thousands of times.
Combined with the urine-yellow color scheme, the mood of “Assassination Games” is dour, even depressed. Though theoretically things should liven up when Flint and Brazil work together, Adkins is a simmering cauldron more than an explosion, while Van Damme is much older and low-key, providing a not-exactly-combustible combo. Director Ernie Barbarash, who has cut his teeth on a number of straight-to-DVD actioners, seems to love seeing the two of them quipping at each other, but neither is enough of a trained actor to bring an intensity stronger than the one at the table-read.
Barbarash has enough experience to know that words are useless when he has these two at his disposal. The project’s original title “Weapon” seemed more fitting -- both are less actors and more like special effects, and Barbarash shoots the action crisply and confidently. Both actors may as well be unstoppable supermen, but in editing the hand-to-hand sequences, Barbarash keeps the camera tight but in-focus, showcasing hands and feet moving at lightning speed against bodies too frail to survive another day of killing. The fight choreography doesn’t lift this effort above Van Damme’s usual direct-to-DVD offerings, but it does prove that there are still filmmakers who understand how to shoot action. [C]