Moore Not Less - The Quest

Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Muscles from Brussels. Like Steven Seagal, Van Damme was once a medium sized cheese in the Hollywood firmament before the inevitable straight-to-DVD years arrived. 1996's The Quest was Van Damme's directorial debut but his star was already slightly on the wane by now. Timecop was a big hit but it was all downhill from there.
Films like Kickboxer (predictable eighties martial arts nonsense but enjoyable enough as far as predictable eighties martial arts nonsense goes) had put Van Damme on the map but, rather like Seagal, JCVD always took himself slightly more seriously than anyone else did and concieved The Quest as a historical martial arts epic that he would direct, star in, and have a story credit. What we have here is a vanity project.
Roger's autobiography is at great pains to avoid hanging any dirty underwear on the line. 'When I have nothing nice to say about a person,' writes Moore. 'I'd rather not say anything at all.' He makes an exception in the case of Van Damme and The Quest's producer Moshe Diamant. Rog has no time whatsoever for either of them in his book and roasts The Quest for being an amateurish chaotic production.
Rog's complaints include being driven to a remote location wedged in the back of a tiny car and a lack of preparation throughout on the part of the producer. At one point there was apparently a mutiny by the crew when Diamant tried to get them to work all night with no overtime pay. Roger cites second-unit direcor Peter MacDonald as the man who managed to get the film finished amidst this incompetence.
Rog also claims that Van Damme stiffed him on a promise to put his name above the title on the poster. When Roger saw the poster, VAN DAMME was emblazoned above but 'Roger Moore' was in tiny text below the title!
The film begins in the present day with an old man (Van Damme in some hokey old-age make-up) entering a bar and beating up some yobbos who try to rob the place. The barman asks him where he learned to fight like that. "It was a long time ago..." comes the reply. I sense a flashback is on the way.
We go back to 1925 New York where Van Damme's character Christopher Dubois is a clown. Quite literally. He looks like Roger at the end of Octopussy. Dubois is the leader of a gang of street urchin orphan children who pickpocket and steal. Anyway, Dubois and the kids end up choring some gangster money and atrracting the attention of the police so Dubois has to stowaway on a boat. He promises he'll be back.
The ship he's on is full of gun smugglers and after being forced to become a slave they decide to do away with him until the ship is raided by a gang of mercenary pirates led by an old cad named Dobbs. Lord Edgar Dobbs (Sir Rog). Dobbs agrees to help Dubois get home but ends up selling him to slave traders in Siam where he becomes trained in Muay Thai.
To cut a long story short, Dubois ends up competing in a secret international martial arts tournament in the "Lost City" and Dobbs agrees to help finance his participation. Joining them are Dobbs' assistant Smythe (Jack McGee) and reporter Carrie Newton (Janet Gunn). Dobbs perhaps feels somewhat guilty about the way he treated Dubois - plus he wants to steal the Golden Dragon prize for his pension fund.

The Ben-Hur of martial arts films claimed Jean-Claude Van Damme when The Quest was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. That may have been a trifle optimistic. The Quest feels like a rehash of Van Damme's earlier Bloodsports film and is, as far as these martial arts films go, quite dreary in places with far too much exposition. The first part of the film with Jean-Claude as a street mime may stretch your patience. It stretched mine anyway.
The film is pretentious with lingering shots of the background scenary and Van Damme taking it all far too seriously. He prays to Buddha statues and seems to think he is in some sort of spiritual masterpiece. Van Damme's one-note performance is not a great boost for the film.
It's a long wait to get to the actual martial arts section of the film and the fight scenes are frequently not even that interesting. Van Damme seems far too reliant on slow-motion and his opponents (from a range of countries with a range of styles) are not terribly exciting. Look at the opponents Bruce Lee has in the full end sequence of (the sadly uncompleted) Game of Death. Hapkidoist Ji Han Jae, a nunchaku duel with Dan Insosanto, the freeform giant Kareem Abdul Jabbar. That's how this type of thing is supposed to be done.
What of Sir Roger? Well, I'd say Roger is the best thing in the film and gives The Quest a touch of class it probably doesn't deserve. Rog, scraggly beard and all, is well cast as the suave bounder Dobbs. He has a half decent acting moment near the end when he apologises to Dubois and reflects that all his toil, service and crookery has come to nowt. There would be no awards winging their way to Roger's mantlepiece but he's trying his best and that's at least admirable with the knowledge that he loathed both Van Damme and and the producer.
The cast are largely nondescript but the always decent James Remar is fair enough as an American boxing champion. Jack McGee is ok as Dobbs' sidekick. According to Roger's memoirs, he liked McGee a lot and was amused by the way he would purposely irritate Van Damme by burping during takes!
The Quest is forgettable on the whole and heavily damaged by the laughable attempts by Van Damme to inject some drama into proceedings. You'll have much more fun with the cheaper and more brazenly and openly ridiculous Kickboxer. At least that film has no pretentions to be anything more than it is.
- Jake

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