Quest, The: Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme

Radically switching gears from his previous contemporary 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 appealing to boys and young adolescents, its primary target audience.

Blend of genres and styles is diverting, without being truly absorbing or engaging, but an international 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’ N.Y., in darkly-lit scenes that are meant to evoke Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Dubois is forced to depart his surrogate family of orphaned children, but he vows to come back and take care of them. Flashbacks from his own painful childhood inform how he was deserted and left to his own devices. In circumstances that are far too mundane–and insignificant–to report here, Dubois is kidnapped and enslaved by gun smugglers, rescued by pirates and finally forced into the turbid underworld of gambling and kickboxing.

Cast as a classic villain, the rapscallion pirate Dobbs, Roger Moore plays his role with characteristic cool and a tad too campy style; alluding to his James Bond career, he introduces himself tongue-in-cheek as “the name is Dobbs, Lord Dobbs.” Dobbs and his fat right-hand man Harry (Jack McGee) rescue Dubois from the gun smugglers and sell him in servitude to Khao (Aki Aleong), Muay Thai Island’s master of kickboxing, who trains him in the martial arts.

In fear of alienating potential female viewers, a beautiful blonde reporter, Carrie (Janet Gunn), is thrown into the concoction to provide romantic interest for Dubois, and for yet another hue, the humdrum tale brings in Maxie (James Remar), the world heavyweight boxing champion, who’s both a threat and a challenge for Dubois. As the movieish quintet makes their way across exotic deserts, jungles, and mountains, using elephants, horses and trains as means of transportation, yarn’s imagery borrows heavily from numerous Hollywood adventures of the 50s and 60s, 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. At this point, the tale slows down considerably, as helmer becomes overly concerned with displaying the dazzling glory of martial arts skills. Audiences may get restless by a whole reel devoted to Karate, Kung-Fu, and Western boxing, but the United Nations 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.

Like Rocky and other sports heroes in American pics, Dubois’ triumph is ultimately a measure of his strong will and moral determination rather than sheer physical aptitude. 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, it’s not surprising that Van Damme should pursue a directorial career. Framed by a prologue and epilogue set in the present, 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 a naive, retro entertainment of a bygone era that it’s doubtful whether contempo audiences, including Van Damme’s devoted fans, will embrace wholeheartedly an insipidly innocuous yarn that revolves around brutish gun smugglers and slick cynical pirates.