Movie Review: Until Death
14 May, 2007
The damn question never goes away, forever bounding back after you’ve hurled it away with a bolt of indifference, pressing its pug features directly into the sternum of your preoccupation, demanding an answer, yet fully aware that the inherent ambiguity buttressing its riddle will fail to be silenced by a sentence of simplified stream of consciousness. What is this rampaging query, this subject of so much scorn and confusion? It’s none other than the dissonant rhymes of: what is art?
The bastard beast saddles up to the platform of the intellect, pure embodiment of migraines everywhere, all set to be loaded up with vapid croaks of misinformed generalisation.
“What?” says a young fellow atop a stone bollard, perusing the pages of the Daily Star with a stealthy finger, “well, surely to fuck, art is less a material object than the affect engendered in the mind of an individual beholding a certain object, an affect of such specificity that we attribute to it labels of grandeur that are subsequently projected externally onto the object in question.” And with that he wearily turned round, tucking his face once again into the bowels of his newspaper and coughing up a solid wedge of sputum.
But what the name of Jeff Fahey’s delayed fame is this enigmatic affect? More to the point, is it in fact Jean Claude Van Damme? This is the very question interrogated by the film Until Death. Yet this cinematic specimen stops short at dishing out the most adjective-laden of elucidations, identifying the site for an exploration into the perils of art in two furry mounds that flank our fearless protagonist’s face, nodes of stunning neon certitude that achieve what was previously deemed impossible, the act of ameliorating the luminous figure of Van Damme. Never before would I have conjectured that such a phenomenal coalescence could be within the realm of feasibility, lashed with a rare potentiality that defies rationality. To be aware that much of the early gossip concerning Until Death expressed lively celebration at the supposed working title of Sideburns of Death is to cast the light of aptness upon the film; granted, this could only be a title locked up in the epiphanies of an early script draft, but it sums up proceedings with such efficacy as to warrant repeated citation.
These kernels of sideburn wisdom will be returned to in due course. Meanwhile, let us ask: what odyssey does the name of Jean Claude Van Damme grace this time?
In Until Death the Belgian sprite plays Anthony Stowe, a hardened cop incarcerated in a routine of heroin rushes and altercations with those on both sides of the law. This man, leather jacket welded to his frame, enjoys nothing more than to piss off his colleagues, attracting a surfeit of dirty looks each and every time he wanders round the office, a perpetual grimace snug over his battered face. Polarised by an innate intent that says, “Get that bad deviant you’ve been after for an age,” and another instinctual urge that whispers, “There may be an old buddy of yours down in forensics that requires a good dose of career wrecking,” Stowe’s multidirectional disdain has no reason to be anxious of depletion, seems that there’s oodles to go about. He even finds time to sweet-talk his wife with such heartfelt maxims as: “what the fuck do you want?”
Setting new standards in eloquence, and winning awards left and right for being an ideal spouse, Stowe’s late arrival for a cosy dinner with the missus at the local karaoke bar turns out to be one letdown too much for her and prophecies of divorce are consequently radiated from her indignation. Perhaps a little harsh one might conclude, Stowe did not purposely leave her waiting, he had been very busy doing a hooker up the jacksy over a pool table in a seedy bar. Some people were just born impatient.
Slightly irritated by this conjugal disintegration, alongside the continuing lack of success in tying his nemesis to the ridges of his fist, Stowe descends further into the breaches of drugs and alcohol. His perforated countenance was probably gestated in a womb full of whiskey – amniotic fluid? Fuck off, double scotch’ll do. Quick cuts to him shooting-up off the highway come to take the place of gunfights and deeds performed in the name of the legality machine; yet despite this, he finds time nevertheless to gallivant into a shower of shrapnel on occasion – be careful you nefarious lawbreakers, this man will snort the criminality off your face!
Eventually, the nasty business of inevitability comes rushing down the stairs, bawling, and shouting something or other about “Van Damme can’t be a deadbeat junky, this just ain’t right.” Hence we witness Stowe take a bullet to the face, lounge about in a coma for a while, wake up a fresh faced saint and go on to rebuild bridges long-pulverised by petulance and disinterest.
Until Death presents us with two diametrically opposed Van Dammes: one whose gullets bark curses upon all, spitting expletives from the bags under his eyes, urinating over the edicts of his chief with nary a thought for upset feelings; then there’s the other one who wastes time banally making amends and righting wrongs previously revelled in, whilst simultaneously being sheathed in the foul smell of tender piano music. Needless to say, this latter incarnation deserves to be harpooned into the sea of sickening redemption from which it came. Comas can be a traumatic event in a life, I will admit that, but spin your mind backwards in time to the year of 1990, the date of Steven Seagal’s dalliances in coma sleep. In Hard to Kill, Seagal exploded out of his coma, dragging his bearded self off to an electrifying training montage, whereas Van Damme in Until Death seems to get impeded by his ABCs – a sad state of affairs, you’ll undoubtedly agree.
What is the reason for this perverse transmogrification? Is it merely narrative convention defecating over us once again, just as in Superman 3?
Well no. Observe the ambulations of Van Damme pre- and post-coma closely, scrutinise every fine detail, and you will discover the glaring truth: sideburns. That’s right, as stated heretofore, facial borders of the utmost tranquillity decorate Van Damme’s head, polished ornaments of celestial beauty, but when he ends his enforced hibernation, they are not there. I believe the entire film can be reduced to this transition to sideburn absence. Stunned into consciousness by the gaps on his face, Van Damme lies shocked on his hospital bed, “where the fuck did they put my sideburns?” inquires his dreary pores. Sideburned Van Damme was able to accomplish the most violent of tasks at high tempo, springing into action at the flicker of an awry bullet, while also weighed down under the burden of nihilism and shackled to the throes of addiction. In contrast, this emaciated skull bereaved of all former sideburn glory wanders around aimlessly, pining over his erstwhile disregard for the human race and mourning the very loss of his sideburns that has caused this disgrace.
The film ends in a grid of spaghetti western motifs deep in the heart of a docklands warehouse, a vibrant mix of stand-off and slow-motion gunfight, a flashing kaleidoscope of cross-cutting that sees Van Damme finally ascend to complete redemption as he saves the wife and exterminates the bad guy. But strands of plot remain unanswered, left to waft uneasily in the wind, namely the issue of those sideburns, which returns again and again. Where did they go? Who took them? What did they do with them? Who are ‘they’? Will the sideburns come back? Can Van Damme find it in himself to grow another duo of those glistening marvels? Is it even possible?
Like the sideburns themselves, the rejoinders to these queries are conspicuous in their absence. Until Death sees fit to teasingly showcase what may be the greatest Van Damme character of all time, even surpassing the dance frenzies of Kurt Sloane in Kickboxer, but then cruelly injects him with a moral disposition and, dare I say it, a slew of compassion. Luckily, the alteration occurs after the halfway point, meaning that we do get a hefty helping of Stowe goodness, something to be cherished until the next time Van Damme plays a despised police officer with spirals of narcotic spores running riot in his corneas.
What is art? Art is Jean Claude Van Damme blazoned with rigid outcroppings of hair and profundity, boisterous ruby chippings of ethereal paradise, microcosmic shuffles of epitomising ecstasy, harbingers of porcelain rectitude, textured topographies writhing in harmonious union – in other words, the sideburns of death.
Jean-Claude Van Damme