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On Blu-ray/DVD: BLACK WATER (2018), BLEEDING STEEL (2018) and DAMASCUS COVER (2018)

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BLACK WATER
(US - 2018)


A more apt title for this nautical non-actioner might be ESCAPE PLAN: RUN STAGNANT, RUN DULL, as cult action heroes Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren reunite once again, though this is really a JCVD vehicle with a glorified cameo from Dolph. Van Damme is Scott Wheeler, an off-the-grid CIA agent who wakes up on a sub that doubles as a secret black-ops detention facility, located in deep waters off the southern coast of the US. He has no memory of how he got there, but he stands accused of traitorous actions against the US, specifically trying to sell classified intel on a drive that's gone missing. He repeatedly professes his innocence, even under the threat of gruesome eyeball injection torture by rogue agent Ferris (JCVD's old DEATH WARRANT nemesis Patrick Kilpatrick). Of course, Wheeler's being set up by former boss Rhodes (Al Sapienza), whose goons (the inevitable Kris Van Damme among them) take over the sub in search of Wheeler after he escapes from his holding cell and finds an unlikely ally in rookie agent Taylor (Jasmine Waltz), who doesn't buy what her bosses are selling her. Lundgren appears briefly in the beginning, as a German detainee named Marco, offering sage advice to Wheeler from an adjacent cell, but he then vanishes for most of the next hour and change before Wheeler springs him and then he finds a way to completely sit out the climax, ample evidence that Lundgren didn't spend more than a day working on this. If you're expecting an enjoyably old-school, throwback Van Damme/Lundgren actioner from the glory days of 1992, then you're better off rewatching UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. Murky and slow-moving, BLACK WATER is an inauspicious directing debut for cinematographer Pasha Patriki (GRIDLOCKED), not helped in the slightest by the fact that passing this tedious submarine thriller off as a JCVD/Dolph teaming is some straight-up Das Bullshit. (R, 105 mins)







BLEEDING STEEL
(China - 2017; US release 2018)


When his Liam Neeson-esque revenge thriller THE FOREIGNER hit US theaters last year, many moviegoers probably assumed it was a comeback of sorts for Jackie Chan, who, other than voice work in the KUNG-FU PANDA movies, hadn't been seen onscreen in American multiplexes since the 2010 remake of THE KARATE KID. Quite the contrary, as the 64-year-old action icon remains as busy as ever, averaging three to four movies a year for the Asian market, most of which get no publicity whatsoever on their way to domestic VOD and Redbox kiosks. Chan's most recent Chinese film to stealthily drop in the US is BLEEDING STEEL, and it's one of his worst, an incoherent hodgepodge of ideas and styles that tries to be everything and succeeds at nothing. It's mostly dour and serious but has slapstick moments that come out of nowhere, and it might make a good kids or at least YA movie, but it's R-rated and far too bloody and violent for younger audiences. Even worse, it's no fun at all, and Chan is uncharacteristically boring as Lin Dong, a Hong Kong special agent whose young daughter XiXi (Elena Cai) is dying of leukemia in a hospital. He's unable to make it to her deathbed when he's called upon by his government superiors to deal with securing Dr. James (veteran Australian character actor Kim Gyngell), a recently defected geneticist whose witness protection has been compromised. Lin and his fellow officers protecting Jones are attacked by a "bioroid" creation of James' called Andrew (Callan Mulvey) and his group of pale, leather-trenchcoated bald dudes who look like they wandered in from a DARK CITY cosplay convention.





Jump ahead 13 years, and Lin ends up in Sydney, Australia when sci-fi author Rick Rogers (Damien Garvey) is killed by the Woman in Black (Tess Haubrich), a ruthless, bloodthirsty underling of a now-ailing Andrew. Rogers' latest book Bleeding Steel shares an alarming number of details that go into specifics on James' experimental work on Andrew, and it turns out the writer was buying the session notes of a witch (Gillian Jones) who's been serving as a quack therapist to confused orphaned teenager Nancy (Nanan Ou-Yang), who feels like her memories aren't her own and she isn't who she thinks she is. That's because she's really XiXi, who didn't die, and was instead treated with a regenerative drug by Dr. Jones. Lin figures this out and teams with younger sidekick Leeson (Show Lo) to protect his daughter from a sickly Andrew, who wants to transfuse her blood to give himself unlimited biomechanical powers. Or something. Chan (one of 50 credited producers) and director/co-writer Leo Zhang take this nonsense a lot more seriously than they should, so much so that it doesn't really gel when the star takes a few lengthy sabbaticals so the film can focus on Show's puerile antics, which include some asinine kung-fu moves while his pants fall down, accompanied by what sounds like someone trying to do the SEINFELD bass line. There's also a wacky food court brawl where an undercover Lin is working at a fast-food joint and wearing a nametag that reads "Jackie Chan." Only Haubrich seems to find the right tone in playing her role, and BLEEDING STEEL comes alive whenever she's onscreen, especially in the one standout sequence, a fight with Chan atop one of the shells of the Sydney Opera House. The film does earn some points for pulling arguably the most shameless deus ex machina in recent memory out of its ass in the climactic battle on Andrew's spacecraft (!) hovering over Sydney (!!), but this is far and away the dumbest movie Jackie Chan has ever made, and not in a good way. (R, 109 mins)



DAMASCUS COVER
(Singapore/UK - 2018)

Based on a 1977 novel by Howard Kaplan but with its setting updated to 1989 just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, DAMASCUS COVER is a spy thriller that wants to be both a BOURNE actioner and a methodical TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY-style espionage saga from the John Le Carre school, and definitely landing more in the latter camp with its low-key presentation and slow pacing that's frequently too plodding for its own good. The notion of showing the evolution of the spy game from the Cold War to the eventual War on Terror shows that director/co-writer Daniel Zelik Berk (a veteran producer whose most high-profile directing credit is the 1998 TV-movie SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK...FOR MORE) has put some thought into the project, but DAMASCUS COVER never really catches fire. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is Ari Ben-Sion, an undercover Mossad agent based in Berlin and posing as a German businessman named "Hans Hoffman." After he botches an extraction of an asset who blew his cover, he tries to redeem himself with his cantankerous boss Miki (the late John Hurt in his final role before his death in January 2017) by volunteering for a dangerous assignment that involves smuggling a chemical weapons scientist and his family out of Syria. He also crosses paths with an intrepid USA Today photojournalist (Olivia Thirlby) while trying to keep her at a distance, and ingratiates himself into the Damascus business world by glad-handing with a wealthy ex-Nazi (Jurgen Prochnow) in a time-consuming subplot that doesn't really go anywhere.






Sir John Hurt (1940-2017)
As expected, the story does some globetrotting, jumping between Berlin, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Damascus, with some attractive areas of Morocco portraying Israel and Syria, and there's the usual double-crosses and people not being who they claim to be, but DAMASCUS COVER just sort of putters along with no real sense of urgency and very little suspense. Igal Naor has a few good moments as a Syrian general, but Rhys Meyers is a bland hero and Prochnow has nothing to do (and I'm pretty sure that's a publicity shot of Prochnow from 1983's THE KEEP serving as the file photo in his character's Mossad dossier). It's competently made and looks nice, but DAMASCUS COVER is a footnote to the careers of everyone involved and it's notable only as Hurt's last film (he was cast as Neville Chamberlain in DARKEST HOUR but his battle with cancer forced him to back out just before shooting began, and he was replaced by Ronald Pickup). He's the old pro he always was in his sporadic appearances as Miki (who isn't too far removed from his Control in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY) and by the end, one gets the feeling that a more intriguing film could've been made about his and Naor's characters. Hurt's final shot near the end, hanging up a pay phone after somberly sighing "Goodbye, my friend," serves as a perfect farewell to a wonderful actor. (R, 94 mins)


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