Watching JCVD made me want to do some research into the recent work of Jean-Claude Van Damme to see if his newfound acting chops had any historical precedent. So I checked out The Shepherd: Border Patrol, which I'd heard was the best of his straight-to-video output. And I gotta say, it was an entertaining meat-and-potatoes flick with some well-staged action and a few inspired touches. It won't change your life, but it's got a good chance of positively influencing your Sunday afternoon.
Let's talk about the title first. The second half of it makes sense, but the first half is like some random Polaroid that Pearl Jam stuck in the middle of their liner notes that has nothing to do with anything and you're like "What is that, a seashell? Somebody's pierced nostril? A phrenology chart in extreme closeup?" It's a complete non-sequitur, almost Dadaist in its aggressive incongruity. Some have postulated that the titular shepherd is actually the villain of the piece, an ex-Special Ops commander who has taken to smuggling heroin across the U.S.-Mexico border by strapping it to illegal immigrants. I call bullshit on that. Not only does no one say anything about anyone shepherding anything in the entire movie, I consider the connotations of the word "shepherd" to be far too positive to be connected to a guy who likes to blow his runners up with explosive vests when they get caught. What I think actually happened was, the sheisty charlatans who financed this flick sold it to distributors under the proposed title The Shepherd, little realizing that that aspect of the story was already being written out of the script by the army of straight-to-video screenwriting monkeys they had locked up in a warehouse in Burbank. But since the wheels of commerce were already in motion, they were stuck with it, so they slapped that Border Patrol part on there to make it look like they'd actually seen the movie they'd made. Basically, it would be like if The Goonies was called Tentacle Cove because of that scene with the octopus that got cut out.
Wait a minute, I just figured this whole thing out. So Jean-Claude is on the New Mexico border patrol, right? He's just transferred there from New Orleans, which is not the first time he's pretended to be Cajun to explain his accent. He's all tortured and shit, but you don't know why. It has something to do with a vague flashback he has where some chick falls back on a bed and closes her eyes and Van Damme knocks over a bookcase. Heavy duty shit. His name is Jack, and he has a bunny who's also named Jack that he carries around in a cage all the time. I think this might be symbolism, I don't know. Hard to tell.
So Van Damme's first assignment is to fight these evil drug-running, immigrant-smuggling mercs, who are known as "coyotes." So think about it: What's the job of a shepherd? To protect his flock from coyotes and other predators. So I guess Jean-Claude really is The Shepherd, even though he does no shepherding whatsoever and no one ever refers to him as such, and in any case he never manages to save any illegal immigrants and that whole angle is a very small part of the movie anyway. The word "shepherd" also has some religious associations than I don't think the movie warrants (unlike in Cyborg, Van Damme does not get crucified for our sins this time), but I'm still glad I could finally get to the bottom of this completely pointless mystery.
Anyway, this movie has a lot of things going for it. It's got a body count in the mid double digits, and the fights are inventive and well-shot, with lots of modified jujitsu moves where dudes climb up their opponents like spider monkeys and flip them over. Despite being in his late forties, Van Damme does a lot of his own stunts, too, as evidenced by this one shot where you can see his face the whole time he does a full body flip around some guy's neck. And the explosive vests are a nice touch, because watching people blow up is one of the things that ignited my love of cinema in the first place.
There's one incredible part in the middle where the coyotes are disguised as priests on a heroin-filled bus full of real nuns and priests. When they get stopped by the cops, all these secret compartments open up and mounted machine guns pop out. Then there's a big firefight where Jean-Claude gets to shoot indiscriminately in the direction of innocent bystanders while the bus knocks police cars through the air. Then they escape to Mexico, but Jean-Claude doesn't give a dog's dick about that jurisdiction crap, so he follows and shoots it out with the villains some more, leaving many nuns and priests dead.
Then Jean-Claude manages to sneak onto the bus for some slick close-quarters combat, complete with human shield, but then his partner, Officer Turncoat McDeadguy, sells him out to the drug lords, who live in a big mansion with heavily squibbed statues all over the place and a swimming pool full of big-tittied bikini bitches. There's an early scene where one of the bad guys keeps lighting small sticks of dynamite on his cigar and throwing them into pool where the chicks are swimming. Nobody seems to mind this overmuch. It's a good thing that guy gets gassed to death in a barn a few scenes later because eventually that joke was going to stop being funny when somebody's breast implant got popped by flying shrapnel.
So Jean-Claude gets thrown in a Mexican prison, where the chief of police gives us a Van Damme staple by making him fight a cage match against the Mexican penal system's number one mixed martial arts champion. The police chief also employs one of my very favorite lazy writing clichés: He speaks perfect English for most of the sentence, until he gets to the words that the screenwriter learned in high school Spanish. Take this line, for instance. "I'll never understand you Americans. Why can't you keep your problems in su país?" So let me get this straight. This guy has a firm grasp on contractions and rhetorical questions, but he can't handle the word "country," which they probably teach on the very first day of Inglés 101? Nice try, warehouse full of typing monkeys.
Luckily, people don't talk very often in this movie, particularly Van Damme. I think he has like six lines of dialogue in the first 15 minutes, and three of them are "Yes, ma'am" and two of them are "I would like a cheeseburger and a coke, please." Luckily, he gets into a barfight in less than 12 minutes, so I ain't complaining. The dude's still got moves, but I don't really like him as the brooding, tortured hero type. I want to see him smiling and hitting on the ladies, like in real life. I think maybe this is why his acting was so much better in JCVD, because they let him talk. Left to his own devices, the man is a total babbler who's beloved by the French for routinely dropping the most ridiculous bon mots of all time. (Example: "Air is beautiful, yet you cannot see it. It's soft, yet you cannot touch it. Air is a little like my brain.") JCVD played more to his strengths than a movie where all he does is glower for whole reels at a time, so then when he finally does talk you haven't had a chance to get used to his accent so everything he says sounds stupid. It's sort of like how sometimes you like a song because it's so bad that it makes you laugh, but then it grows on you and all the irony leaks out so that you don't even remember why you thought it was funny anymore. That's what the sound of Jean-Claude Van Damme talking is like.
Also, has anyone else noticed that he has a huge lump on the right side of his forehead? It looks like a softball is trying to birth itself through his skull.
Anyway, if you like back-to-basics action where the clergy is collateral damage and a floppy-eared bunny rabbit gives the best performance, you could do a lot worse than The Shepherd. It's still got that direct-to-DVD look, but at least it's well framed and edited, which is more than you can say for most theatrical action movies these days. And thanks to over-the-top touches like the awesome bus chase and the exploding vests, it's got a more big-budget feel than anything I've seen from Seagal in at least ten years. Maybe this Van Damme guy's got legs after all.