Retro Isn't New: DOUBLE IMPACT (1991)
“Twin brothers torn apart by violence. On a mission of revenge. One packs a punch, one packs a piece.Together they deliver... DOUBLE IMPACT!”
How Jean Claude Van Damme’s Double Impact (1991) became my most anticipated blu ray release of 2019, fighting the ranks past even Mill Creek’s upcoming Mothra Steelbook, is something of a mystery, but the hamfisted promise of the above tagline has a little something to do with my level of enthusiasm. My preoccupation creeped in like a sleeper agent, accruing slowly and stealthily since MVD Rewind’s October 2018 announcement. Tantalized by sparse updates, spurred on further by the prospect of Mill Creek’s Double Team (1997) blu ray, I was practically frothing at the mouth by the time the May 23rd street date rolled around. The point of an edition like this - artifactual, celebratory, completist - is that it allows for a comprehensive kind of enjoyment through inclusivity, the feeling of being invited to know something fully, to bask unapologetically in its lowbrow frivolity, its purity. Wherein lies the freeing paradigm shift of values that is the thrust of my appreciation for Rewind and is the source of strength for the sweeping 90’s retro zeitgeist of the moment. Even someone who wears two marathon screenings of Kobayashi’s The Human Condition on 35mm as a badge of cinephilic pride can sport a stupid grin about a movie this diverting being given the right to posterity because it is a 90’s bareknuckle megadose. I for one didn’t have enough face to accommodate the smile I was wearing when it landed on my doorstep. I had secretly chosen Double Impact to represent something personal, a final demolition of the hindering scaffolds of mutual exclusivity around my tastes. That said, a little bit of homework revealed of Double Impact its orientation in a larger continuity of events, suggesting that the film co-written, produced and starring Jean Claude Van Damme…. and…Jean Claude Van Damme… may be a work of arguable consequence when positioned in the spectrum of sprawling film industry activity between East Asia and the US in the 1990’s (which will be expounded upon in pt. 2 of this piece).
Originally intended as an adaptation of the 1844 French novel The Corsican Brothers by Alexandre Dumas, Double Impact was shifted dramatically in tone, time and location to (then) contemporary Hong Kong with an infusion of fish-out-of-water-comedy, mistaken identity antics and sublime brutality. Nearly 25 years after their father, Paul, and mother, Katherine (Sarah-Jane Varley), are killed by Hong Kong crime boss Raymond Zhang (Philip Chan Yan Kin) in cahoots with Paul’s scruple-less business partner Nigel Griffith (Alan Scarfe), separated twins Chad and Alex (Jean-Claude Van Damme) are reunited under the banner of vengeance. The rather childlike and sincere Chad, raised in France and America by Paul’s surviving war buddy and bodyguard Frank Avery (Geoffrey Lewis), is living in Beverly Hills Los Angeles as a martial arts trainer when Frank learns of Alex’s whereabouts and sets a plan in motion for their clandestine reunion. The harder edged, short-fused Alex, who was saved by their Chinese nanny and raised at an orphanage in Hong Kong, grew up on the streets and has made a life of dubious trade. As the reunited twins demonstrate a fantastic sibling rivalry, their plot for revenge takes incongruous but inevitable effect. With the help of Frank, and Alex’s girlfriend Danielle (Alonna Shaw) who has an inside connection to Griffith, the path to that vengeance is also a potential path to brotherhood. Fortunately the execution by Lettich registers zero on the sentimentality scale, its sense of humor more tonally and situationally integrated, and its fight/stunt sequences memorable because their stakes are leveraged to the perfect degree. On most levels it works, on others it misses the point, and on others still it makes a bullseye. Is it “magic” as JCVD exclaims in the making of?… perhaps not… but there is a curious and ambitious quality one can sense while watching Double Impact - perhaps it is sincerity - that makes one want to forgive it just a little.
This raises the question that has plagued me ever since I fell down this MVD Rewind Rabbithole: Does artifactuality excuse faults? I cannot say. I can say that we look at such objects with a different kind of distanced objectivity, we dissect, we study, we appreciate their place in a constellation. There is a curious neutrality or benignity that sets in when you view something as an artifact, alleviated of its direct responsibilities or fallout, able to mine it for its virtues and failings, see it for its effect, in a way that it seems more difficult to do with contemporary objects (films/books/art), still sticky with the mucilage of the moment.
While elementally problematic, boasting a raft of missed opportunities (several of which are addressed by the cast and crew interviewees), encapsulating a quintessential 90’s bravado and masculinity presented at time when toxic masculinity is being substantively dismantled, Double Impact was and is an unlikely candidate for any dedicated discourse, yet here it is, still in my blu ray player almost a month later. Double Impact shared the stage in 1991 with Point Break (dir. Katheryn Bigelow), and the two films seem to resonate with their intrinsic physicality, but also their thesis on pitches, intensities and timbres of masculine identity/behavior in extreme or competitive environments, which is perhaps why they seem like such vital contributions to the contemporary discourse on masculinity itself. These films are dense with it, demonstrative, but not without their counter-qualities. They are aware of their pulse. They play to it. Thus Double Impact may have its use yet.
Although Double Impact passes the Bechdel test by the skin of its bloodied teeth, Danielle (Alonna Shaw) and Kara (Cory Everson) are written with, shall we say, a shade of salacious inconsequentiality. A reminder that the Bechdel test is not an award for valor but represents the lowest possible bar, beneath which is a fathomless chasm of films that don’t even make that cut. While Kara may have an excuse as Griffith's predatory enforcer (albeit a kudos that the role was written for a woman), Danielle’s role as the “inside woman” at Griffith’s office is a missed opportunity on two fronts. Her investigative arc is underexploited for the kind of tension and suspense it could have offered overall, far beyond the damsel in distress scenario it took shape as. Her intelligence and instincts were stunted, despite how clearly Alonna Shaw could have worked with more dynamic material, and her investigation could have more compellingly revealed something we didn’t already know. Though her eventual acquisition of proof of her boss Griffith’s dubious dealings with Triads from 25 years back is theoretically important, it is treated as a footnote. But the elephant in the room, thankfully admitted by the director and producer in the MVD Rewind-produced making-of doc, is that the role of Danielle could have, and should have, gone to a Cantonese actor (though given its less than substantive nature it may very well have played problematically into shallow fetishistic tropes of Asian women). For that matter, Frank could have and should have been played by a Cantonese actor too. These would have constituted two substantive and logical casting decisions, two opportunities for Asian talents in a mainstream American feature that weren’t ostensible action roles. Thus is the glaring absence of Asian faces on the virtuous side of this story (and countless others), raising the equally glaring question of “why Hong Kong?” if Asian faces are only going to be contextualized as enemies, albeit that other than the muscled and scar-faced Bolo Yeung, the worst of the worst in terms of baddies (Griffith, Kara, and “Bodyguard with Spurs”) are played by white people. Im not sure that’s a victory though. This is one of the things that makes Double Impact so indelibly 90’s and so indelibly Hollywood, irrespective of the gleefully dated cornball credit theme song. The Cold War had literally ended the same year. Everything was still about America vs. the world, and the face of that America, shaking off the yolk of perpetual and ambiguous conflicts jet-fueled by ever subtler tactics of othering, was still white. The filmmakers had sense enough not to exoticize Hong Kong in any real way. It is simply a story set there. We get to know the texture of the streets, the harbors, the factories and other environs well. The sad part is that this sensibility wasn’t extended into the principal casting of “the good guys”.
After voraciously consuming Double Impact, aglow with nostalgia and bristling with suppressed critiques, I looked back thinking I had seen so many more JCVD films than I actually did: thus is the multiplicity of celebrity and also formula. In actuality, I had only ever seen three of his major releases in their heyday, yet the “Muscles from Brussels” loomed so disproportionately large in my mind: thus is the perception of one’s impact over their presence. JCVD fell off my radar sometime between his directorial debut The Quest (1996) and Double Team (1997), which is to say, when he fell off most peoples’ radars. What can I say, the Star Wars Special Edition theatrical releases took up most of my time that year, and by 2000 I was an arthouse inductee. MVD Rewind seems insistent upon resolving this lapse, this highfalutin fools errand in the land of “good art” by fanning the distant flame flicker of malevolence in my eye and filling in the backstory of this estranged Belgian brawler. Their editions of Lionheart, Black Eagle and now Double Impact have constituted a thorough throwback education, not merely in regards to Van Damme but enveloping the host of creators, cast and crew that participated in and around the projects that equated Van Damme’s meteoric rise, with a valuable focus on creative/commercial filmmaking processes for what are ostensibly low-to-medium budget, largely independent productions that hit the mainstream strong.
The team behind Double Impact made a valiant effort with their $15,000,000 budget (equivalent to $28,144,052.86 now). Considering that it was an international production set in HK with a significant technical caveat, sequences on water, pyrotechnics, etc, a lot was squeezed out of that comparatively meager bottom line. Chad and Alex’s twinning effect is admirably realized by cinematographer Richard H. Kline. With a combination of motion control camera work, frame splicing, theatrical lighting techniques, stunt doubles, photo doubles, and an incredibly calibrated editing process, it is easy to lean into the reality of the fantasy. Van Damme plays each brother to the hilt, one sensitive and a tad naive, whose ferocity needs to be coaxed, the other jaded, distrusting, filterless and highly reactive. However, the success off this production is due mostly to an incredibly resourceful HK unit headed by Charles Wang (Associate Producer) and John Cheung (Stunt Coordinator), and the capacity to shoot street sequences virtually without permit, its $30,000,000 US and eventual $80,000,000 world wide box office seems to suggest that the generally negative critical response was the only thing that hampered a sequel. Double Impact could be read as a key structural element in the bridge of future projects between Hong Kong and the US that would swell in the 90’s, some of which would further involve Van Damme.
DOUBLE IMPACT SPECIAL FEATURES
• High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the main feature in 1.85:1 aspect ratio • English 2.0 Stereo Sound (LPCM), Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 • English, Spanish, French Subtitles • NEW! The Making of Double Impact: Part 1 (HD, 53 mins) + The Making of Double Impact: Part 2 (59 mins) [A two part feature length retrospective documentary about the making of the film featuring interviews with star and co-writer Jean-Claude Van Damme, director and co-writer Sheldon Lettich, producer Ashok Amritraj, co-star Cory Everson-Donia, co-star and fight coordinator Peter Malota and “Chad” and “Alex” photo doubles Jeff Rector & Jerry Rector] • NEW! Double Impact: Deleted / Extended Scenes (SD, 54 mins) • NEW! Double Impact: Anatomy of a Scene [with Director Sheldon Lettich] (HD, 8 mins) • Double Impact: 1991 Behind the Scenes Featurette [Rarely seen legacy featurette from 1991 featuring interviews with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Moshe Diamant and Charles Layton] (6:58, SD) • Double Impact: B-Roll Selections [Raw, behind the scenes footage from the set] (8:05, SD) • Double Impact: Film Clips [Five full frame clips from the film for use in TV promos](4:52, SD) • Cast & Crew Interview Clips [1991 EPK interview clips featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Moshe Diamant and Charles Layton] (6:21, SD) • Double Impact MVD Rewind Collection Promo (:24, HD) • Original Theatrical Trailer (1:40, SD) • Collectible Mini-Poster
MVD Rewind’s DOUBLE IMPACT is available now on blu ray.