A joyless actioner with nowhere near enough Dolph Lundgren to satisfy, Black Water is an easy paycheck for an aging Van Damme.
The older Jean Claude Van Damme gets, the weirder he seems to look. He’s always had that bulbous knot on his forehead, but as his face becomes thinner and more ghoulish, the angrier it seems to become. His head, and the additional one sprouting from it, teeters on the atrophied muscles from Brussels like a bowling ball balanced on a stick figure. If you’re wondering why I’m bringing this up and not, say, reviewing his new home-video actioner Black Water, it’s because the star’s increasingly-freakish appearance is a lot more noteworthy than this new movie’s plot – such as Black Water could be said to have a plot at all.
The billing insists that Van Damme stars here alongside his old Universal Soldier buddy Dolph Lundgren, perhaps the only action star who needs to be rendered less realistic in order to be believable. The Swede is 60 years old, but you’d never tell. Standing six-foot-four with a genius intellect, two degrees in chemical engineering, several martial arts championships and prior careers as a nightclub bouncer and a model, he could probably be the German special forces soldier he plays here just as a lark in his spare time. Only problem is, he’s hardly in the movie.
Instead, Van Damme shoulders most of the high-kicking and pew-pewing as Scott Wheeler, a CIA special agent who apparently only partners with attractive women (Courtney B. Turk plays the first; Jasmine Waltz laughably plays the second.) Wheeler’s deep-cover assignment involves a flash drive containing information about the CIA’s sleeper agents, but luckily it can only be accessed using a special dongle. For what it’s worth, Van Damme’s pronunciation of “dongle” is one of Black Water’s few pleasures.
Captured by the bad guys and with good reason to suspect that the U.S. espionage community isn’t entirely watertight – fancy that! – Wheeler finds himself aboard a submarine that’s being used as a Company black site. He’s to be interrogated by his handler, Rhodes (Al Sapienza), and a coterie of ruffians, for the location of the dongle. But Van Damme doesn’t break under torture. Van Damme cannot be contained in prisons. (Haven’t any of these CIA employees seen Death Warrant?) And so off he pops into the belly of the vessel as his wrong-un captors turn on each other at the behest of Chad Law’s padded, hysterically nonsensical script.
Meanwhile, there is running and gunning to be done within the underlit, drearily grey passageways, although cinematographer Pasha Patriki, who also directs, does occasionally make sure to include the odd hilarious exterior shot of a cruising submarine just to remind everyone that this is definitely happening underwater. Van Damme’s career went down the toilet a long time ago. Where else would it be?
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.