Van Damme's "Quest" Flynn-like Epic

NewStandard: April 25, 1996

By Michael H. Price, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The newest working director on the block is also one of our better-established action stars. Jean-Claude Van Damme has often lamented the lack of what he calls "Errol Flynn-type pictures" among the high-adventure attractions of recent years, so he has used some growing clout behind the cameras to try such an old-fashioned costume melodrama.

"The Quest" is the picture, and it recalls such still-popular gems as "Captain Blood," Errol Flynn's own career-launcher from 1935, and Ludwig Berger's "The Thief of Baghdad" (1940) -- with a nod to John Ford's "The Quiet Man" (1952) for good measure. One epic fight scene, so elaborately photographed that a single move contains more than 20 camera angles, forms the core of a movie that at once returns Mr. Van Damme to his origins as a martial artist and proves the guy to be a deeper thinker than his detractors would be willing to acknowledge. Of course, those who would dismiss Mr. Van Damme do so without actually seeing his movies. Which is a shame, inasmuch as the big Belgian has tended to underscore the ticket-selling cheap thrills in most of his pictures with intricate choreography, socially relevant and even prophetic ideas, and an insistence on stretching his capacity to act.

Mr. Van Damme, co-author Frank Dux and scenarists Steven Klein and Paul Mones have crafted here a pirates-and-pilgrims fantasia, complete with an elaborately conceived Lost City setting and so thorough a mixture of history and fancy that the one becomes indistinguishable from the other. In New York of the 1920s, Chris Dubois (Mr. Van Damme) is a thief who is abducted by gun runners and slave racketeers. He winds up in Genghis Khan's old stomping grounds, obligated to fight or die. Roger Moore, veteran portrayer of James Bond, serves "The Quest" as a distinguished veteran of the English Navy who has turned pirate. It's a plum role for Mr. Moore, who provides a convincing father figure for Mr. Van Damme's character -- only to prove all too eager to exploit the captive's fighting prowess for profit. The period setting allows for a homage to the films Mr. Van Damme admired as a youngster, and permits a Jules Verne-like approach to the rigors of world travel.

Jean-Claude Van Damme the director dwells fondly on this bygone, mostly imagined world. Jean-Claude Van Damme the star yields generously to Mr. Moore's droll performance -- and to a veritable convention of martial-arts whizzes. Standouts among the combatants include Mongol-style wrestler Abdel Qissi; Spain's Peter Malota, with his flamencolike acrobatic moves; African fighter Ellis Winston; and Scotland's Michael Ian Lambert, who makes a kilt and tam o'shanter look like combat togs.

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