After playing identical twins twice in his career (“Double Impact,” “Maximum Risk”), Jean-Claude Van Damme essays a serial killer and his clone in “Replicant,” a pleasantly silly actioner in which, as in “Impact,” the Muscles from Brussels gets the opportunity to tussle with himself. Van Damme convinces as both the vicious baddie and his newborn-but-superfit double and, while there’s nothing particularly eye-popping on display, combat set pieces are all entertaining and neatly woven into a so-so narrative. Pic, which has no Stateside release date as yet, opened July 11 in France, where some local crix are ranking this serviceable mixed-genre piece by Hong Kong vet Ringo Lam as Van Damme’s best work since “Universal Soldier.” Helmer and star previously worked together on “Maximum Risk” (1996).
The day before he retires, Seattle police detective Jake Riley (Michael Rooker) comes within inches of capturing the Torch (Van Damme, with shoulder-length hair, leather jacket and contemptuous scowl). The Torch, whose specialty is killing single mothers and setting fire to their corpses, has been at large for three years and has just beaten to death his 11th victim.
The Feds offer the decommissioned Jake a job and whisk him off to a top-secret mountain retreat, where scientists have cloned an adult from one of the Torch’s hair follicles. The creature — referred to as just “Replicant,” in the way James Cameron insisted the big boat be called “Titanic” rather than “The Titanic” — not only shares the killer’s DNA but has “enhanced telepathic capability.”
Replicant (Van Damme, clean-cut and charmingly clueless) is a prototype for an anti-terrorism program based on the theory that a “genetic double” with a strong mental bond to its progenitor can lead authorities to the original. Stern federal agent Stan Reisman (Ian Robison) of the National Security Force (“We’re not the FBI”) tells Jake to teach Replicant all about human behavior and “awaken the killer” in him so he’ll guide them to the Torch.
Scenes in which blank-slate Replicant is kept in a sterile chamber and shown videos on how to walk, stand, sit and eat reach a comic peak when he picks up movement hints from Olympic gymnastics tapes. Soon he’s perfectly enacting the flamboyant gravity-defying moves with a minimum of practice.
Using psychology and handcuffs, Jake tames Replicant like a dog and then it’s off to the streets of Seattle. Replicant is devoted to the nasty, impatient Jake until he escapes, comes face to face with the even nastier Torch, and then can’t decide where his allegiances should lie.
Although it’s nearly as ludicrous as “Face/Off” — and far darker and way less slick than Schwarzenegger’s chummy double turn in “The 6th Day” — this relatively modest enterprise has a workaday plausibility about it, bolstered by familiar archetypes such as obsessed loner cop, expedient Feds, helpful hooker, etc. Comedy is both intentional and unintentional: a scene in which Jake’s mom catches her son feeling up the nearly nude Replicant for a homing device is hilariously off-kilter (“I’m working, Mom — it’s not what you think”). But mostly the pic charges ahead with confidence, filling the spaces between the inventive confrontations with banal dialogue.
Van Damme anchors the proceedings with sufficient aplomb to put across this police procedural with strong sci-fi elements. As Replicant, the martial arts maven’s wonderstruck body language is winning; as the Torch, he conveys surprising menace. Rooker’s Jake is way too gruff and unsympathetic.
Vancouver locations fill in nicely for Seattle. However, somebody should have reminded scripters that American TV news bleeps profanity (Jake uses explicit language every time the media sticks mikes and cameras in his face).