Martial arts superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme fights himself in a spectacular action spectacle! What an intriguing concept! Well...not quite. Jean-Claude Van Damme in a dual role should be no surprise to film buffs. He has already played identical twins in Double Impact and Maximum Risk. So what is the difference here? In Replicant, one of Van Damme's many comeback attempts, he does not play twin brothers for a change. Instead, he plays two separate characters who just happen to be polar opposites. Replicant is one of the first in a long line of direct-to-video projects starring our favorite Muscles from Brussels (you know, the guy who can perform that impressive 360 degree jump spin kick) and directed by none other than super-cool Hong Kong action director Ringo Lam.
To get things started, what surprised me the most is this film's relentlessly somber and dark tone. I am usually accustomed to thinking of Van Damme's movies as light-hearted action flicks. While the violence in these films was a bit heavy, they were for the most part harmless. Now I enjoy moody and somber films (provided they are well-written) as much as the next guy, but personally, I just do not find melancholy and Van Damme to be the right marriage. I know I may not seem fair, but it's hard to take a Van Damme film seriously. So what does that make of Replicant? At best, it's a decent, if unexceptional serial killer and sci-fi hybrid. While this film has its problems, it definitely has its moments as well and as a result, Replicant actually ended up being a better film that I initially expected.
In the city of Seattle, Washington, a serial killer known as "The Torch" (Van Damme) is on the loose. With his dark leather jacket, greasy hair, and hardened attitude, The Torch in a way resembles Eric Draven of The Crow fame. This pyromaniac enjoys preying on unsuspecting victims, most notably young mothers with young children. This sick-minded killer tortures each victim -- as her child watches helplessly -- and even takes photos of the grisly evidence before summarily torching everything...including the corpse of the dead mother, and the entire room, leaving the child to die.
Jake Riley (Micheal Rooker) is a dedicated good cop determined to capture his man. Jake has been deeply obsessed with hunting The Torch for three years, yet every time he damn near catches himâ¦he lets this fiend slip right out of his grip. Well, after The Torch has just claimed his eleventh victim, Jake is not going to let him get away. A foot chase ensues leading to a confrontation in an indoor parking lot. Unfortunately, Jake lets The Torch narrowly escape...
Right after the chase is over, Jake realizes that he has just been officially retired. Retirement for him though, is blemished by the fact that The Torch has constantly eluded him. With the case unsolved for now, Jake has to realize that he cannot dwell on what he was unable to accomplish. Instead, he ought to drop the case and celebrate his retirement.
While celebrating his retirement with his family and friends, Jake receives a phone call. The taunting voice sounds familiar...
Jake cannot have his peace until he solves this case. He is then contacted by a couple of folks from the "National Security", informing him that they can help find and capture The Torch. How? Through a super-clandestine government project involving the creation of a "replicant", an exact "genetic double" of any person. Using The Torch's DNA sample found at a crime scene, scientists at a secret laboratory have managed to successfully clone The Torch. We, the audience, actually get to witness the awakening of this replicant, known as "Number One" (this is a very disturbing scene, mind you).
There is one major problem though: Number One has the mental capacity of an infant. He has to learn how to perform the basic functions of life, e.g. sit, walk, eat, etc. For some reason, Number One also gets to learn his martial arts skills by watching various gymnastics videos and emulating those moves performed by the gymnasts (such as walking on his hands, et. al.). I guess those scenes are just an excuse for him to show off his physical prowess (admittedly, what was even more impressive was that at age 40, Jean-Claude Van Damme could still perform splits).
Number One is believed to be able to lead Jake to The Torch's known whereabouts since this clone (supposedly) is, in essence, a doppelganger who shares the memories of the original. Jake is then assigned to basically baby-sit Number One and motivate him to remember all the criminal deeds The Torch has done. However, can Jake trust a clone to help him solve the crime? Or will this clone end up like the original -- a dangerous threat to society?
The fight choreography in Replicant is solid, if unspectacular. As The Torch, Van Damme really does not execute any breathtaking stunts or moves, but it's for the better because I would be shaking my head in disbelief if a serial killer tried to show off his fighting abilities. Instead, The Torch just fights raw and dirty. As Number One, Van Damme is still able to perform some amazing acrobatic maneuvers (such as this one sequence where he is trying to elude some National Security guys who want to detain him). While the fight scenes in Replicant are far from dazzling, they do pack some realistic punch.
The action scenes themselves are sparse, but there are a few good moments. One such example is a pretty cool scene where Number One and The Torch duke it out in a bar -- in front of two startled witnesses. My favorite though, is the climactic roller-coaster style chase scene involving Jake clinging onto a runaway ambulance. Ringo Lam's solid direction makes the action satisfying.
What did disappoint me though is the film's awkward pacing. Sometimes, the film slows down when it doesn't need to and it does become fairly repetitive to watch Number One predictably do childish things like repeat what everybody else says. There is also apparently a relationship between Jake and Angie (Catherine Dent) but I feel that it is fairly inconsequential and more often than not, distracts from the film's main plot.
Despite Van Damme's presence, the action sequences in Replicant are actually secondary to the film's character development and (surprise!) even traces of pathos. Right off the bat, I will admit that character development is surprisingly decent. Through the effective use of flashbacks and profiling (examining and understanding his behavior via evidence left behind), we gradually learn who The Torch really is and what shaped his twisted mind. Now if Van Damme were a better actor, then The Torch would have been a truly memorable on-screen villain.
It is also interesting to witness how Number One emotionally develops and learns about his own
"identity." Ironically, Van Damme performed quite well as the replicant. I guess you could call Van Damme's method acting in Replicant a tale of two halves. As just mentioned, Van Damme could have done a better job as the psycho. To put it charitably, he was flat as the bad guy. He no doubt tries, but this guy simply does not frighten me. Perhaps playing a psychopath was a stretch for him.
On the flipside, Van Damme is proficient as a genuinely confused genetic double; he manages to convincingly display the mannerisms and behavior of the child-like clone. He even shows emotion, allowing us to sympathize with him. Now, Van Damme should not be expecting the Academy Awards to knock on his door after viewing his performance in Replicant...but nevertheless, he does a fairly solid job as a clone trying to comprehend the nature of his existence -- and who he really is. He has certainly shown some growth as an *ahem* actor.
Michael Rooker is okay as the hard-edged cop (a character who is resoundingly similar to Stan Zedkov, also played by Rooker, in The Replacement Killers). He really does not bring anything new to an old cliche, but whether he plays the good guy or the bad guy, Rooker always distinguishes himself with his cacophonous voice and tough-as-stone personality.
Like most low-budget thrillers, Replicant does have its share of weaknesses. To top it off, the film's most grating weakness is its problem finding the right audience to appeal to. Replicant does try to mix several genres -- including sci-fi, action, and psychological thriller -- together and as a result, this film is a bit schizophrenic which may end up alienating fans of certain genres. For starters, sci-fi fans will be turned off by the fact that the film does absolutely little to explain the details of the cloning process or how it is suppose to work. To make the situation even more convoluted, the replicant Number One supposedly shares a telepathic link to The Torch, but none of it makes any real sense. There are plenty of science-fiction themes in this movie; unfortunately, none of them are properly explored.
Action fans may still enjoy this, but the action scenes themselves are really not that exciting (the climactic fight scene in particular between the good and evil twins is truly anticlimactic). Fans who normally enjoy the works of John Woo or Jackie Chan are better off seeing something else if they desire non-stop action. Fans of dark psychological thrillers will probably enjoy this the most, but some may end up being turned off by the cliches in the script.
Speaking of cliches, Replicant has far too many of them. Such examples include the short-tempered, hard-nosed cop who has a habit of using brute force -- even on the clone -- to extract answers and the government unwilling to reveal much about the project because it has its own secret agenda. Of course, let us not forget the sympathetic prostitute with a heart of gold.
So does Replicant earn my recommendation? It depends, but suffice to say, this sort of subject matter (e.g., what makes serial killers tick; what are clones like) has to appeal to you. And if you are a typical Van Damme fan, show patience, and understand that this film is not as action-packed as his previous works. Overall, this is a decent film with its fair share of strengths (Van Damme's performance as the replicant, solid action) and weaknesses (cliched script, inconsistent pacing) balancing each other out. Still, Replicant did manage to exceed my (admittedly low) expectations so I have to give everybody involved with this film credit for making it better than I expected.
Replicant isn't nearly as thought provoking as say, Never Let Me Go. Put it this way: Replicant will not compel you to debate the ethical issues of human cloning or make you think deeply about the moral consequences of cloning a criminal, let alone a human being. For many people, this film may even be forgettable.
But if anything, Replicant is the best Damme movie out there -- featuring the Muscles from Brussels in a dual role, of course. And for some fans, maybe, just maybe that is enough of a recommendation.