Radically switching gears from his previous contempo and futuristic thrillers , “The Quest,” Jean-Claude Van Damme’s new vehicle, is a decidedly mixed bag, a self-consciously old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure that insistently aims at a primary target audience of boys and young adolescents. Blend of genres and styles is diverting, without being truly absorbing or engaging, but an international supporting cast headed by Roger Moore should help Van Damme’s directorial debut reach a moderate level of success domestically, with a stronger performance overseas, where he’s always been more popular.
“The Quest” feels like a personal movie for Van Damme in two different ways: It pays tribute to the action-adventure movies he had enjoyed watching as a boy growing up in Belgium, and it also pays homage to the martial arts that have made him an international star. Van Damme plays Chris Dubois, an honest, idealistic street criminal who embarks on an odyssey of self-discovery that literally spans the globe, from the slums of New York City to the mysterious magic of Tibet’s Lost City.
Beginning in ’20s New York, in darkly lit scenes that are meant to evoke “Oliver Twist,” Dubois is forced to leave his surrogate family of orphaned children, but vows to come back to take care of them. Flashbacks from his own painful childhood inform how he was deserted and left to his own devices. Dubois is then kidnapped and enslaved by gun smugglers, rescued by pirates and finally forced into the turbid underworld of gambling and kickboxing.
Kidnapped and enslaved by gun smugglers, Dubois is rescued by a classic rapscallion pirate, Dobbs (Roger Moore), and his fat right-hand man, Harry (Jack McGee), who in turn sell him in servitude to Khao (Aki Aleong), Muay Thai Island’s master of kickboxing, who trains him in the martial arts. Moore plays his role with characteristic cool but with a tad of over-the-top campiness; introducing himself, he says “the name is Dobbs, Lord Dobbs.”
A beautiful blond reporter, Carrie (Janet Gunn), is thrown into the mix to provide romantic interest for Dubois; for yet another hue, the humdrum tale brings in Maxie (James Remar), the world heavyweight boxing champion, who’s both a threat and a challengefor Dubois.
As the movieish quintet make their way across exotic deserts, jungles and mountains via elephants, horses and trains, yarn’s imagery borrows heavily from numerous Hollywood adventures of yore, including “King Solomon’s Mines,””Around the World in 80 Days” and “Hatari!”
Culminating in the Lost City, Dubois’ odyssey becomes a test of honor and manhood in the mythic “Ghan-gheng,” an ancient winner-take-all competition, in which the best fighters from all over the globe aggressively compete for the coveted prize, the Golden Dragon.
Audiences may get restless during a whole reel devoted to karate, kung-fu and Western boxing, but the U.N. will be proud, for Van Damme’s cross-cultural perspective offers glimpses into the flamenco-like stance and acrobatic leaps of the Spanish fighter, the wildly unorthodox style of the African, the slower movement of the kilt-dressed Scottish, and so on.
The climax, which provides Van Damme a suitable showcase for his specialized gifts, pays homage to the famous — and far superior — John Wayne-Victor McLaglen brawl in “The Quiet Man,” with the combatants bursting out of the indoor arena and fighting all the way through the Lost City.
Having choreographed his own battles and stunts for years, Van Damme’s move into the director’s chair is not a surprising development.
Framed by a contempo prologue and epilogue, “The Quest” is not badly directed or executed. David Gribble’s lensing is often visually pleasing and Randy Newman’s score is melodic in a way that befits the time period.
Nonetheless, this richly costumed epic represents such naive, retro entertainment in the style of a bygone era that it’s doubtful whether modern audiences, including Van Damme’s devoted fans, will embrace wholeheartedly an insipidly innocuous yarn that revolves around brutish gun smugglers and slick, cynical pirates.