It's interesting what happens to actors when their star starts to fade. While Jean-Claude Van Damme was one of the biggest box office draws of the late eighties and early nineties, by the time 2000 rolled around he was more or less relegated to 'straight to video' status making cheap films in Europe. While it's common for once popular stars to take foreign offers when they find themselves on the decline, Van Damme has actually made it work. When you compare him to Steven Seagal, whose movies have gotten progressively worse over the years, Van Damme is proof that you can make a comeback, even if it's one that doesn't necessarily set the world on fire. This brings us to Until Death, his latest direct to video opus, distributed by Sony like the few movies that preceded it such as In Hell and Wave Of Death.
When the film begins we meet a cop named Anthony Stowe (Jean-Claude Van Damme), working out of the narcotics department of the New Orleans Police Department. Stowe's got some problems – he's hooked on heroin and he's on the outs with his wife, Valeria (Selina Giles) who we soon learn is pregnant with another man's baby. On top of all of this, Stowe is after his ex-partner, a man named Callahan (Stephen Rea) who has quit the force and made a life out of distributing heroin on the streets of the Big Easy.
Stowe's a bit of a scumbag, he's self absorbed and treats his wife poorly, cheating on her and neglecting her and more or less forcing her into the arms of another man. When he's out on the job after Callahan one afternoon, he's shot in the head and sent into a coma from which no one expects him to recover. He beats the odds, however, and a few days later his eyes are moving. The hospital moves him back in with his wife so that she can look after him while he recovers, and once he does, he cleans up his act and tries to set things right with her before heading out to take care of Callahan once and for all.
While the first half of the movie moves at a fairly slow pace, it's for a good reason as the story allows us to get to know Stowe a little bit at a time and piece together the puzzle he's trying to solve once he recovers from his injury. Van Damme does an admirable job on the role, playing the 'before and after' versions of Stowe quite realistically and playing the arrogant prick just as well as the changed man on a quest for redemption. It's interesting to see the 'Muscles From Brussels' spread his wings a little bit and take on more of a dramatic role and it's even more interesting to see him actually succeed at it. Those who know the man only as the arrogant kickboxer that he once was could very well walk away from this one quite surprised by Jean-Claude's quiet and understated performance. While his shared screen time with Rea is minimal, when the two are in the frame together they have a reasonably good chemistry. Unfortunately, the one major flaw of the film is that Rea's character isn't very well developed, he's more of a superficial and fairly anonymous bad guy than a properly fleshed out foe. Another interesting aspect of the picture is the way that Stowe's relationship with his wife is portrayed. There is no storybook romance here. While it ends on a predictably happy note they do have their share of problems to overcome and we learn early on that there's more to solving this problem than Stowe simply kicking his smack habit and ceasing his adulterous ways. Selina Giles plays the sympathetic character well, and her relaxed but reasonably emotional performance works well alongside Van Damme's quiet demeanor.
Director Simon Fellows (who also directed Van Damme in 2006's Second In Command) could have worked on the pacing of the first half of the movie a little more but the second half more than makes up for a few underdeveloped characters and slower spots. Moments of genuinely shocking violence punctuate the movie and the leads all handle the material well. We're not talking Oscar nominations or anything like that, but don't let the low budget, straight to video nature of Until Death fool you – it's a surprisingly dramatic and mature turn for Van Damme, and hopefully a sign of more good things to come.The DVD
Sony's 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen for Until Death is surprisingly good. The film uses a fairly dark color palate for the majority of its running time so don't go into this one expecting eye popping colors, rather, things are toned in grey and darker greens. Black levels stay strong and consistent while flesh tones look lifelike and natural. Some edge enhancement is present but there aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts, grain, or print damage. Fine detail in both the foreground and the background of the picture is quite strong and really, there's very little worth complaining about here. The movie looks much better than it's relatively low budget roots should allow.Sound:
As with the video, the audio quality on this disc is also very good. The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix is the sole track on the disc and subtitles are available in English only along side English closed captions, making this disc impenetrable for those who don't speak the language but that's the only complain you can really levy here. Surround usage is quiet during the first half of the film but the rears really kick in during some of the action set pieces and particularly during the big shoot out towards the end of the movie. Dialogue is clean and clear and never hard to understand while bass response is tight and lively, giving your subwoofer a nice kick every now and again. Levels are properly balanced to ensure that the performers are never buried by the effects or the score and there are no problems at all with hiss or distortion.Extras:
Aside from some somewhat stylish menus and a chapter sub-menu, the only supplements included on this disc are trailers for a few other completely unrelated Sony DVDs that are available now at a fine retailer near you.Final Thoughts:
Van Damme continues to rule the straight to video action movie scene and he continues to impress by taking more challenging roles and exploring his more dramatic side while staying true to his action movie roots. Until Death is a surprisingly mature and dramatic film with some fantastic set pieces and a strong plot. Sony's DVD doesn't contain any real extra features of note but it does look and sound pretty good, so you can consider this one recommended.