During the closing credits of “The Last Mercenary,” we see a montage of Jean-Claude Van Damme in the various getups he wore during the movie (a fuzzy beard; a mustache and Yankees cap; a blond wig; a Bond tuxedo; drag). The film presents this cavalcade of mostly routine disguises with wide-eyed affection, as if it were showing us Peter Sellers in his “Pink Panther” prime. It’s all part of the delusion that the makers of “The Last Mercenary” (who are French) are apparently under: that Jean-Claude Van Damme is no mere action star — that he’s a stylish comedian, an icon of such ironic charisma that we’d follow him anywhere, even through the paces of a maladroit caper movie like this one.
Van Damme was always a good-looking bruiser, sleeker than those other martial-arts poster boys Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal. He’s 60 now, which in our world isn’t that old for an aging action hero, but in “The Last Mercenary” he looks like a bombed-out version of himself — the ravaged, caved-in planes of his face, the scowl that melts into a leer, the eyes that don’t so much burn as glare with distemper. (It’s anyone’s guess why they decided to accessorize that glum saturnine mug with sideburns that look like twin strips of shag carpeting.) Van Damme now resembles no one so much as a corrupt, gone-to-seed version of Jim Varney, the actor who starred in the “Ernest” films, though I don’t think Van Damme’s 60-going-on-undead look would be much of a problem if he were doing that thing that just about any Van Damme fan wants to see him do. You know, fighting.
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He does do a bit of the old kickboxing in “The Last Mercenary,” and guess what? He’s still exciting to watch. The film’s action climax takes place in a game room filled with pinball machines and video games, and as Van Damme lays waste to his enemies, all set to the sounds of Sylvester singing “Do You Wanna Funk” (and to the ’80s beeps of the games), the film raises your pulse; it reminds you why Van Damme was a star. He was not a star because he could act, but in “The Last Mercenary” he plays a legendary secret-service agent, Richard Brumère, nicknamed “the Mist” (because that’s how hard to trace he is!), who comes in from the cold after 25 years to reunite with his long-lost son, the puppy-dog-like Archie (Semir Decazza), whom he didn’t raise. You could call the film a slightly absurd corruption thriller, an action movie with not enough action, or a by-the-numbers father-son bonding movie.
Yet here’s what’s weird about it. “The Last Mercenary” thinks it’s a comedy, but not because anything in it is actually funny. Rather, the entire movie is post-synched, and I mean in that distractingly over-italicized, I’m-reading-my-lines-as-loud-as-I-can mode that was big in the ’60s (the “Godzilla” films, the Italian “Hercules” films, Woody Allen’s “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?”), and that now seems a bizarre anachronism. The tone of the line readings is so in-your-face that it leaves you seriously wondering where comedy leaves off and ineptitude begins.
The French, to be fair, have always found secret agents funny. In the ’70s, they gave us “The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe,” which was a very funny movie about an ordinary chump mistaken for a spy, and in the 2000s the “OSS 117” films (which I love). But “The Last Mercenary,” which seems partly inspired by the 2017 Amazon series “Jean-Claude Van Johnson,” mostly plays like a haphazard and overlit straight-to-home-viewing thriller.
There are sequences that can make you lower your head in embarrassment, like the one where Lazare (Alban Ivanov), a government functionary who becomes part of the Mist’s motley crew, takes a scooter ride through Paris in nothing but a helmet and his underwear. And then there’s the fact that Archie’s identity has been stolen by Simyon (Nassim Lyes), a psycho idiot so obsessed with Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in “Scarface” that he thinks he is Tony Montana. That’s potentially a funny idea, but the movie is so literal about it — he chews a cigar and says “Say hello to my little friend,” he watches “Scarface” in a screening room with the same tropical sunset wallpaper — that it never quite discovers what the joke is. Van Damme does have something he didn’t have before: an aura of craggy seen-it-all-ness. In a better movie, it might work. But
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