Black Water Jean Claude Van Damme’s Action Epic

Anybody who watches Belgian martial arts actor Jean-Claude Van Damme’s action epics may find “Black Water (**1/2 OUT OF ****) fair-to-middling for a film that reunites him with his “Universal Soldier” co-star Dolph Lundgren.  Although this is the fifth time Jean-Claude and Dolph have teamed up on the big screen, Dolph’s presence amounts to little more than a glorified cameo.  The six-foot, five-inch “Masters of the Universe” star remains incarcerated for most of the film’s 104-minutes in a cell aboard a U.S. Navy sub which serves as a black-site prison for enemies of the state. This contemporary domestic espionage thriller depicts the larger-than-life heroics of a secret agent framed for a murder he didn’t commit and arrested then interrogated by the FBI.  Arguably, “Black Water” surpasses neither “Hard Target” nor “Enemies Closer,” but it tops “Dragon Eyes” and “Black Eagle.”  Meanwhile, Jean-Claude encounters more than enough trouble as a seasoned CIA agent on the lam from the FBI.  “6 Bullets” scenarist Chad Law not only wrote the improbable but derivative screenplay, but he also shared story credit with “Altitude” co-scribes Tyler W. Konney and Richard Switzer.  For record, Dolph and Denise Richards co-starred in this white-knuckled escapade about a commercial jetliner hijacking in 2017.  Law’s formulaic screenplay brings nothing new to the genre, but he keeps everybody swapping enough lead to surprise us with a couple of eye-opening revelations.  Canadian helmer Pasha Patriki, previously a cinematographer on over 80 films and short-subjects, makes an efficient directorial debut.  Mostly, Patriki drums up enough momentum so the action doesn’t meander off on a tangent.  In some respects, “Black Water” reminded me of the superior Sylvester Stallone movie “Escape Plan” where Sly was holed-up in a black-site prison aboard a supertanker.

“Black Water” opens mysteriously with deep cover CIA agent Scott Wheeler (Jean-Claude Van Damme of “Maximum Risk”) recovering after having been drugged by the FBI and confined aboard a nuclear submarine.  As far as the CIA is concerned, this retrofitted sub doesn’t exist.  Wheeler talks through the wall with an inmate in the adjoining cell, Marco (Dolph Lundgren of “Red Scorpion”), who we learn later is a German spy long incarcerated aboard the vessel.  Wheeler asks him about escape options, and Marco remarks that nobody escapes from this floating prison unless they go out in a body bag.  The film flashes back in time to the incident that landed our hero in the bowels of a submarine in the depths of the ocean.  Wheeler had met another CIA agent, Melissa Ballard (Courtney B Turk of “Devilish Charm”), at a secret rendezvous in a Mobile, Alabama, motel. Each shows each other the computer thumb drives that they have.  Later, we learn the drives contain names of undercover CIA agents. If these drives ever wound up in the hands of adversaries, it would constitute a crisis for the Agency.  Ballard leaves the hotel to get lunch, and Scott sticks around long enough to hear the cleaning lady knock on the door.  He opens the door and watches moments later as the domestic is riddled in the back with a barrage of lightweight submachine guns.  A squad of masked assailants launch an attack on Scott, and he knocks off several before he flees and catches up with Ballard.  During this crackling firefight, Ballard receives a wound, and the chief villain shoots her at point-blank range.  Fortunately, Scott manages to escape.  He phones his contact, Drummond (newcomer Harry B Joachim), and they agree to meet at a parking garage about 150 miles away.  Predictably, when Scott climbs into Drummond’s truck, he discovers that his contact has been shot in the head and is dead.

Without warning, the FBI careen into the parking lot in their sinister black SUVs, and a tactical team surround Scott, while another FBI agent frisks our hero for a thumb drive.  The senior FBI agent-in-charge, Ferris (the incomparable Patrick Kilpatrick of “The Presidio”), has convinced himself beyond a doubt that Scott murdered Drummond.  Scott’s CIA superior and mentor, Edward Rhodes (Al Sapienza of “Lethal Weapon 4”), doesn’t believe Scott murdered Drummond.  Grudgingly, Ferris allows Rhodes to accompany them aboard the sub.  After Scott awakens, Ferris grilles him about the drives, but he has no luck loosening Scott’s tongue. Just when Ferris’ flunky is poised to plunge a hypodermic needle into Scott’s left eye does Rhodes intervene with far-reaching results that change everything.

Doubling not only as helmer but also lenser, Patriki orchestrates the opening firefight with praiseworthy flair.

Unfortunately, the trigger-happy villains expend hundreds of rounds without a wound, while our gimlet-eyed protagonist makes his considerably fewer shots count.  Van Damme delivers a straightforward, conscientious performance and shows no qualms about his receding hairline. JCVD depends more on his accuracy with firearms than his butt-splitting, martial arts shenanigans.  Tough guy Patrick Kilpatrick doesn’t last long enough on screen, but he makes an unforgettable impression.  My primary “Black Water” criticism is the misuse of Dolph Lundgren.  He enters the action in a significant way during the final quarter hour after being shown repeatedly in cutaways during the many firefights on the sub.  When Dolph pulls his weight, the life and death stakes in “Black Water” escalate considerably as he towers over JCVD.  Indeed, you don’t get to see much of the blond, Swedish action icon, but he serves his purpose admirably, enlivening the ending with his charismatic presence.  My secondary criticism concerns Fernando Valdes’s production designs.  Sometimes, it felt like all the firefights during the voyage were staged in a cavernous warehouse.  Indeed, the sub has been remodeled to accommodate a prison, but some of the sets don’t look like they could fit aboard a sub.  Presumably, the producers must have felt the problem trifling since most audiences will see “Black Water” on television.  My second Fans of the Denzel Washington & Gene Hackman thriller “Crimson Tide” may recognize the sterling stock sub footage the producers appropriated.  At best, “Black Water” makes the cut barely as an above-average JCVD actioneer!

 

 


Van Roberts

vtroberts@muw.edu

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