The Last Mercenary Wants to Be a Jean-Claude Van Damme-Led Rush Hour
Josh Bell
In the years since his action-star heyday, Jean-Claude Van Damme has taken on plenty of roles in straight-to-video action films, much like his contemporaries Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren. Occasional Van Damme projects emerge into the mainstream as was the case with 2008's JCVD and the 2017 Amazon comedy series Jean-Claude Van Johnson. The series of sequels that Van Damme and Lundgren have made based on their 1992 film Universal Soldier has also gathered quite a cult following. However, Van Damme remains completely engaged in his various projects, in spite of the final product's success.
In Van Damme's latest movie, the Netflix original The Last Mercenary, Van Damme is game for all of the ridiculousness created by director and co-writer David Charhon. Van Damme throws himself into the dopey comedy and delivers fluid, energetic action throughout his fight scenes. But, the movie is convoluted and full of dumb jokes and annoying supporting characters, which takes the focus away from its charismatic star's committed performance.
Van Damme plays Richard Brumère, aka "The Mist," a former French government operative who went rogue following a 1995 mission dubbed "Operation Cup-and-Ball" -- a name that is referenced multiple times in what sounds like a joke that doesn't properly translate from French to English. Since then, Richard has been working as a freelance mercenary, as demonstrated in the opening scene in which he rescues the kidnapped son of a Ukrainian businessman. Richard's return to France is set off by a clueless minister who cuts off the monthly payments made to Archibald (Samir Decazza) -- who happens to be Richard's son.
This sets off a complicated chain of events that removes the blanket immunity Richard negotiated for Archibald previously, which has been co-opted by yet another government minister as cover for an arms deal with a Scarface-obsessed terrorist. There are way too many moving parts for a movie that's ultimately about Richard reconnecting with his estranged son, and it takes far too long for Charhon to put all the pieces in place.
Jean-Claude Van Damme in The Last Mercenary
Jean-Claude Van Damme in The Last Mercenary
Eventually, Richard makes his way to the housing project where his son lives. At first, Richard claims to be a friend of Archie's dad, there to protect him from the dangerous forces who are now after him following the cancellation of his immunity. Along with Archie's friends Dalila (Assa Sylla) and Momo (Djimo), they work to stop the terrorists from acquiring a doomsday weapon called the "Big Mac," while avoiding the French government agents who are trying to capture Richard now that he's returned.
This chain of events leads Richard to form a ragtag team of rebels -- that Charhon later mocks with a faux-majestic hero pose. There's self-deprecating comedy throughout The Last Mercenary, something that Van Damme has been known to explore. He gets to do his iconic splits in a couple of action scenes, and he also parodies his infamously awkward dancing.
Those little comedic nods -- including a later Bloodsport reference -- are cute, but most of The Last Mercenary's comedy is unsuccessful. It's possible that some of the French-language humor is lost in translation. Jackie Chan has demonstrated that slapstick comedy and martial arts-led sequences can go hand in hand, and overcome language barriers; but, Van Damme is no Jackie Chan. Van Damme is at his best when he's able to stick to straightforward action and his fight sequences in The Last Mercenary are just as effective and exciting as ever.
Mostly, Van Damme is called upon for cringe-worthy comedic bits. All of the humor in The Last Mercenary is broad and cartoonish. For example, when Richard has to give Alexandre a believable injury to alleviate suspicion, his punch to Alexandre's face results in Alexandre's tongue lolling out like some sort of Looney Tunes character.
Van Damme is probably having a good time with The Last Mercenary, as is French superstar Miou-Miou, who shows up as one of Richard's old contacts, helping ease him back into the spy game. But Van Damme has been better served by self-aware comedy in the past when the meta-humor has some weight to it. The Last Mercenary is more like the French equivalent of one of Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger's ill-advised forays into comedy. It aims for Rush Hour and ends up with Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
The Last Mercenary is now streaming on Netflix.