I’ve spent years wishing that Kansas City could have a world-class cinema-going experience. I wanted a nice theater to go to like the ArcLight, or a place to go where I could regularly see older movies that deserve to be seen with an audience. So Alamo Drafthouse‘s recent move into KC was sort of the miracle I kept praying for but never expected to get.
Alamo moved in a couple of months ago, but last night was its first signature event – a marathon of four fucking Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, an event dubbed Van Dammage. For over eight hours, over 100 Kansas Citians gathered in the dark to watch bad guys get round-housed, as well as to see dude butts – all to a never-ceasing chorus of exaggerated explosions. I can say with every good and bad meaning of the word, I’ve been thoroughly “Van Dammaged.”
The night began at 5pm with Bloodsport. One of the more prominent films from the 80′s martial arts craze, Bloodsport sees JCVD as the awesomely named Frank Dux, who ditches his day job with the army to fly to Hong Kong and participate in the world-famous underground martial arts competition Kumite. The only rule – there aren’t any. Seriously: lives get taken and, worse, balls get punched.
There aren’t many ways to appreciate this 1985 film without a good sense of irony, but those who get a kick out of absurd line delivery and weirdly over-the-top close-ups – a.k.a. everyone in attendance – know and cherish the film. JCVD has never become a world-class actor, but his restricted woodenness is particularly absurd here, and other characters resembling the likes of Macho Man Randy Savage and a top-heavy stack of beefy pancakes only add to the other-worldliness of this movie’s unintentionally surreal nature. It helps that its soundtrack is awesome.
Next up was Hard Target. Whereas Bloodsport is definitely and primarily a bad movie, Hard Target is first and foremost a standard early 90′s ka-bluey of an action film (directed by John Woo, no less). In this one, a be-mulletted JCVD stars as a sometimes-homeless loner who goes about his business until he discovers Lance Henrickson murdering hobos for sport. In his journey to bring justice to the streets of New Orleans, a lot of things get a’sploded (a lot), and Arnold Vosloo gets angry.
The action is nothing to brag about in this Woo film (yes, there are slow-motion doves). But beyond the staging, the fight scenes earn their keep with their hugeness. You might think it’s pretty hard to stand up on a moving motorcycle while shooting at an oncoming truck, but then again you probably haven’t watched JCVD do it before jumping and landing on his feet. There’s also a lot to be said of any movie that features Wilford Brimley drunkedly speaking with a Creole accent.
In between movies, the night’s emcee gave us 15-minute breaks and encouraged us to “piss,” “shit” as well as to “high-five the shit out of each other.” Our host, who doubled as the evening’s programmer, spoke with legitimate enthusiasm and joy for everything JCVD-related, while using the word “fuck” quite a lot. Even better, he ran pig-heart eating contests (not a joke) and gave everyone dog tags. This was definitely an Alamo-curated even through and through, and the inter-film experience only added to the silly glee of the films.
The lowpoint of the evening came with Universal Soldier. Roland Emmerich‘s 20-year-old film hasn’t aged well – with outdated “futuristic” technology, JCVD and fellow butt-kicker Dolph Lundgren have been programmed by the U.S. government to be the ultimate cyborg warriors – until they decide to go after each other.
This isn’t a humorless film, but the comedy is minimal and mostly bland (one exception – watching braindead JCVD maw on home-cookin’). Whereas Bloodsport and Hard Target have grown from B-Action movies to comedies since their initial release, the unremarkable action of Universal Soldier has just grown older into less remarkable action.
After that lull, the night finally kicked into its highest gear with an early-by-45 minutes midnight screening of The Expendables 2. This franchise is supposed to be the ultimate culmination of every 80′s bicepfest action movie, but it hasn’t quite figured out how to approach its inspiration.
More Rambo than Commando, Expendables 2 has its heart in the right place. There are more callbacks to each actors past catch phrases than any movie should be able to get away with, but then again this is the one movie that one-line callbacks were made for. And the action is super nuts, even if it rarely comes out to shine – most of it is too accelerated to do much good.
What Expendables 2 fails at is just how stupid it needs to be. No one watches First Blood – Part II because of the drama, and Sylvester Stallone is even stiffer now than ever before (plus he never screams “I am the law!”, which is stupid).
It’s hard to be too critical of The Expendables 2, directed by Simon West, because it doesn’t operate under any sort of self-importance. All we get here is a standard “Hey that bad guy has a nuclear device, let’s murder him” story to string us along from one stunt to the next. (Or at least I think that’s what the movie was about. After three bad action movies, though, my brain may have just stopped taking note of plot.)
But for as much fan service and Fuck-It mentality as it has, The Expendables 2 never capitalizes on what made its source material so much fun to watch – it’s equally stupid and awesome. The Expendables 2 just wants to be awesome, and tries to cram it down your throat.
The same couldn’t be said of Van Damamge. For far, far too long, we were all voluntarily subjected to some of the silliest accomplishments of the cinematic medium. Did I get a headache? Yes. Did I scream “Fuck yeah!”? Yes. It was all crammed down our throat, yes — but it was equal parts stupid AND awesome.