Like my friend Jim over at Fantasmo Cinema, I have been watching a lot of DTV Steven Seagal films. Not only have I really enjoyed them, but they have opened my eyes to a whole world of movies that I didn't realize existed. Most people that only keep up with theatrical movies think guys like Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Dolph Lundgren have stopped making movies. WRONG. They are still making ass-kicking films for the direct-to-video market. Sadly though, we don't seem to be treated to any DTV titles from Jeff Speakman or Thomas Ian Griffith though. So after about a dozen Seagal movies, I decided to check out Van Damme's latest movie, The Shepherd.
Van Damme plays a former New Orleans cop named Jack Robideaux. I guess the New Orleans origin is supposed to explain his Belgian accent! The movie opens with Jack driving his truck to New Mexico to begin his new job working for the U.S. Border Patrol. Sitting beside him in the truck is his rabbit, also named Jack. He carries the rabbit with him everywhere. He carries him to his first meeting at work and to the local restaurant to eat . . . twice! There is obviously a reason Jack is so attached to Jack. It makes for some really funny moments. I really think humor has always been one of Van Damme's strong suits and it comes out in this movie.
Well, it's not long before Jack, the man not the rabbit, begins having nightmares and flashbacks of a young girl dying. This is hint number two about his backstory. Moving on to Jack's first day at work patrolling the border, he spots a group of illegals running across the border and piling into a van. The illegal that Jack takes down before he can get back to Mexico is strapped with C4 explosives like a suicide bomber! The guy blows up and you are left thinking, "wow I wonder what this could be about?" Don't wonder because the explanation doesn't make any sense. Seriously, I rewound the scene, listened again and still didn't get it. You see, some crazy ex special forces guy set up shop in Mexico as a drug lord after serving in Afghanistan. For some inexplicable reason, he makes his drug runners wear explosive vests. Maybe to control them? I'm still not sure. This aspect of the plot is nothing like the leap of logic you have to take later.
Once Jack gets captured by the ex special forces drug lord, named Benjamin Myers, Jack is forced to reveal why he is working for the Border Patrol. Because, as both we and Myers note, he is no ordinary border patrol guy! Jack then tells us that his daughter died of a heroin overdose and that he has vowed to kill Myers in revenge. Ok, Jack and his family live in New Orleans. Jacks daughter buys heroin and dies of an overdose. Jack then somehow finds out exactly where her heroin came from, changes careers, and moves to New Mexico to find the drug lord in charge of everything. Even Myers says he doesn't go to New Orleans. Just how in the hell did Jack tie his daughter's heroin to this one specific guy? Oh nevermind. Do I really watch movies like this for the plot? Hell no! I watched it to see Jean-Claude do some Van Dammage! So does he?
You better believe it! The fight scenes in this movie are freakin' awesome! The camera is pulled back enough so you can see than Van Damme is doing the fights himself. There is a fight with some locals in the restaurant that is classic JCVD. We also get a fight in a Mexican jail that is pretty sweet. The warden decides to enter Jack into a for-entertainment prison fight where other inmates bet on the matches. Jack both takes a beating and gives a beating in return. At the end, all of the Mexican inmates are chanting "gringo! gringo!" in appreciation of his fighting ability. You get some awesome kicks to the head, jumps, flips, and other signature Van Damme moves. The final fight is great and features a great twist. Jack is disoriented and more than a little wobbly during his fight with the martial-arts-master henchman of Myers. He still manages to beat the guy to a pulp. His rage in the final moments of the fight is palpable. It isn't a Bloodsport quality fight but Van Damme is older now so I didn't expect it to be. It is, however, on par with his studio work like Hard Target or Sudden Death.
The Shepherd passes the tests where it counts . . . in the action department. In an era where theatrical action movies are dominated by wusses, wire work, and PG-13 ratings, it is nice to see a real man kick some real ass. If you like Van Damme or you just like old-fashioned action movie, The Shepherd is a must watch!
Oh, did you think I forgot the rabbit? You can probably figure it out but I thought I'd leave you curious about something for an extra incentive to buy or rent the movie :)