The overriding concern in “Maximum Risk” is action. Cars careen through the streets of two continents, buildings burn and explode, bodies fly through the air from the force of fists and kicks, and bullets whiz by. It’s a visceral delight that refuses to be deterred by niceties of plot or character consistency and prefers sweat to emotion. This full-tilt genre boogie is technically a cut above the average carnage saga and should represent improved box office for slam-bang star Jean-Claude Van Damme. In this instance bigger looks better for commercial prospects in all areas.
From the opening frames, it’s clear the pacing will be breathless. Through the narrow streets of Nice our hero is pursued on foot and in cars by assassins. In the process of eluding them, he hurtles through the air and into the windshield of a parked vehicle. The plot options are clear: He lives, the story goes into a flashback, or the twin brother arrives.
“Maximum Risk” opts for the convention of the double. Alain Moreau (Van Damme) is a French flic confronted by his deceased look-alike. The dead man’s passport identifies him as New York City resident Mikhail Suverov. And yes, Mom (Stephane Audran) reveals, they were so poor she had to give up one of her twins for adoption and has harbored that secret until this terrible day.
Luckily, Alain’s a fearless cop (and a martial arts master). His twin’s death as a result of foul play offers a twofold opportunity. He can find out something about his brother’s life and why he came to France to seek out Alain, as well as uncover the evil doings surrounding the murder.
Assuming his brother’s identity, Alain heads for the Big Apple’s Little Odessa. The good news is that Mikhail has a stunningly attractive girlfriend named Alex (Natasha Henstridge) and the bad news is that both the local Russian Mafia and corrupt FBI agents want him dead. Mikhail, the godson of the local don , had the goods on everyone, and the evidence is smartly tucked away in a safety deposit box in a Nice bank.
The rest, including a rivalry with Ivan (Zach Grenier) for the Russian crime czar’s affection, is mostly window dressing for action set pieces. The filmmakers work hard to bring novelty and adrenaline to the familiar: One massacre gets played out in a steam bath, and a critical fight is staged in an elevator.
Director Ringo Lam the vet Hong Kong filmmaker whose “City on Fire” inspired “Reservoir Dogs” knows his movie history and is extremely adept at cribbing from good action pics and adding his own twist to the proceedings. Lam’s U.S. studio debut looks like a high-gloss version of the potboilers he made in the Crown Colony. The difference is time and money additives that provide a dazzling sheen , heightened by Alexander Gruszynski’s smooth camera style and a high polish from editor Bill Pankow.
But, like the Hong Kong pics, story and logic are repeatedly sacrificed for flash and tempo. Accomplished performers such as Jean-Hugues Anglade, Audran and David Hemblen are squandered in thankless roles while Grenier, as a villain with dramatically rich potential, is reduced to a cartoon crazy. Frank Van Keeken, as an emotionally out-of-kilter New York cabby, is a scene-stealer terminated early in the picture for the sin of introducing color and texture.
If newcomer Henstridge has dramatic qualities, they will have to be discovered in another movie. The filmmakers’ idea of animal attraction is to have her stare like a hare caught in the glare of headlights. Van Damme, at least, is gaining poise in front of the camera to offset his limited dramatic range.
“Maximum Risk” has more than its fair share of jolts and can easily be enjoyed for its superbly choreographed ballet of blood, blasts and blows. Yet the echoes of past actioners, including Van Damme’s earlier twin-brother saga, “Double Impact,” cast a cynical shadow over the pic that chips away at the fun.