THE FILM 3/5
“He’s a trained killer…a one-man army.”
After a massive shootout, a mysterious stranger (Van Damme) arrives at a local hospital on the brink of death. Then, a foreign gang brazenly comes to the hospital to hunt him down. His nurse, the sole surviving witness to the follow-up shootout, must face an FBI interrogation that unlocks a plot of international intrigue and revenge. With enough twists and turns, Kill ‘Em All will keep you guessing until the final bullet is fired!
I’ve written quite a bit about Jean-Claude Van Damme’s films in the past. I even kinda sorta interviewed him. And during these explorations into the action superstar’s latter career, I always gave credit where credit was due: that even if he’s mostly ended up going direct to video during the latter part of his career, he was able to circumvent the films offered to him and pick the ones that had merit, or which would be made by a director with a proven track record. Basically, just because a film was being made for the video market, that didn’t necessarily mean that quality was an automatic casualty. While Van Damme remains as watchable as ever, it’s sad to report that his newest DTV actioner, Kill ‘Em All, reeks of the kind of low-budget and amateurish Red Box fodder that his colleagues Seagal and Lundgren have been pumping out for the last fifteen plus years.
For those Van Damme pupils who watched the misleading trailer for Kill ‘Em All and secretly adored that cartoonish, throwback title, it’s important you know one thing: it’s not fun. And that observation should be absorbed entirely outside of the film’s actual quality. Even if Kill ‘Em All had been a great film, it still wouldn’t have been fun. It’s actually both a fairly morose tale of international conflict and a personal revenge story – coupled together, everyone frowns, or cries, or wails into the sky. Van Damme’s lovable eccentricity that he’s been showing off more and more over the years – like his villainous turn in The Expendables 2, and especially in the severely undervalued Enemies Closer – is completely absent here. He’s back to being dark and dour and really, really sweaty. And again, there’s nothing wrong with this. Dark and dour (and really sweaty) worked in Universal Soldier: Regeneration, or JCVD, or even Assassination Games. Were Kill ‘Em All going to embark on such a journey with Van Damme, replacing his fun and funny demeanor with a more Bryan Mills type, than the structure it chose to tell its story was ultimately the thing that robbed the film of any enjoyment at all.
Kill ‘Em All’s most entertaining sequences – of which there are far too few – are sandwiched in between too-long interrogation sequences involving Suzanne, a young nurse at the hospital where all the Van Dammage took place (played by Autumn Reeser), and FBI agents Holman (a miscast Peter Stormare) and Sanders (a miscast Maria Chonchita Alonso). As an opener, the interrogation scene works averagely; it’s the foreplay of the action film that fans have long gotten used to. But each time a sequence unfolds at the hospital, ending with handfuls of black-clad henchmen meeting the nasty end of Van Damme’s spin kick or bullets, the inevitable return to the interrogation portion sucks whatever goodwill and energy Kill ‘Em All has managed to establish. After a while, as the film plays on and relies more and more on these sequences, the reason behind it becomes more telling: because despite Van Damme’s face on the cover and his name up above the title, he actually receives less screen time than Stormare. Though the editing has Van Damme appearing entirely throughout, his scenes are few and far between. He has maybe five lines of dialogue the entire running time. And Kill ‘Em All is so desperate to marry the best parts of The Godfather 2 and The Usual Suspects and tiny portions of John Wick that it’s hoping you won’t notice you’re spending more time with FBI bureaucrats than the Muscles from Brussels that’s led you to watch the film in the first place.
To be clear, Kill ‘Em All is still miles above some of the final releases of Van Damme’s theatrical career, and to be clearer, it’s still far better than every Seagal and Lundgren DTV effort pretty much ever. Van Damme once knew how to play the DTV market to his advantage, maintaining a lead over all the other faces on all the other DVD covers because of his recognition, reputation, and history with the genre. But like his previous film Pound of Flesh, which again sacrificed fun for overwrought drama and heavy handed theatrics (and so, so, so much slow motion), Kill ‘Em All’s concept promised the kind of fun and carnival-like action romp for which we, his fans, were hoping, but again, sadly didn’t deliver.
THE PICTURE 4/5
Finally, the positives. Kill ‘Em All looks great, in spite of long-time Van Damme stunt coordinator and first-time director Peter Malota’s over-reliance on glitchy editing and slow motion sequences. The picture is very sharp, and various sequences — mostly during the mid-level henchmen’s “origin story” vignettes — offer unique looks, along with unique color schemes. Clarity is also very good, ably capturing very fine detail.
THE SOUND 4.5/5
The audio presentation on hand is even better. Dialogue (and boy, there’s a lot) receives top prominence, although with the thick accents on display from Van Damme and Stormare, you might be reaching for that subtitle button every so often. Carnage sounds like carnage! Though there’s not nearly enough of it, the sequences containing action sound full and bombastic.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 0/5
The gentle, soothing sounds of crickets in the night.
I will always be a fan of Van Damme, and I’m hopeful that future action romps worthy of his presence are sure to come – and let’s not forget Amazon has picked up his meta comedy/action series Jean-Claude Van Johnson to series after the airing of its very well received pilot – but despite the fun title, Kill ‘Em All managed to only kill one thing: my enthusiasm. Its Blu-ray release satisfies in the AV department, but not so much in the supplemental one. No doubt Van Damme completists will be wanting to add this to their collection, so tedious plot and over-used post-production slow motion be damned, at least it will look and sound good. Personally, I’m depressed that’s the best I have to say about it.