Split-kicker Jean-Claude Van Damme both mocks and embraces his iconic action hero status in The Last Mercenary, an action-comedy about a dangerous secret agent meeting, and teaming with, his sheltered 25-year-old son. Van Damme himself is vibrant and playful, but the overall familiarity of the story and unsurprising nature of the jokes leads to a somewhat dull watch. In short, only a few high kicks find their (hard) target here.
An earnest effort to craft a family comedy out of Van Damme’s decades of dark, violent films (Street Fighter excluded, naturally), The Last Mercenary features silly disguises, bumbling bureaucrats, a villain who thinks he’s Tony Montana from Scarface, gentle Van Damme action, and some slapstick. And look, at times, the movie wields a charm. When Van Damme’s shadowy merc, Richard Brumère (aka “The Mist”), has to mold a special ops team out of, basically, his normie son and a few other scared civilians, the film finds its best and sweetest spot. But the bulk of this movie is leftovers from capers you’ve seen before and the film suffers immensely whenever it’s not focused on Richard and his son and decides to shuffle us off to watch the bad guys and/or the government bozos being duped.
In recent years, Van Damme became overly at ease with winking at his legacy as an ’80s and ’90s martial arts movie star. 2016’s Ridley Scott-produced Jean-Claude Van Johnson, which lasted one season on Amazon, featured Van Damme as a kaleidoscope version of himself in which the Hollywood “Van Damme” persona was merely a cover for a real-life secret agent. In a similar vein, 2008’s better-received JCVD featured the “Muscles from Brussels” as a down and out semi-fictionalized version of himself.
So now, once again, Van Damme toys with these meta-aspects, though The Last Mercenary ditches the actual Van Damme-ness and presents a character whose past exploits only resemble the types of things Van Damme heroes would have done in movies 30 years ago. And there’s nothing coy happening here. In fact, one character even commands, “It’s time to make the ’90s obsolete once and for all!”
The trick then becomes to turn Van Damme’s tongue-in-cheek take on his persona into a full movie (when it already didn’t work as a TV series). For this, Richard gets a son: a boy he chose to give up to the French government long ago in exchange for his silence (and exile). Young Archibald (Samir Decazza) grew up safe and secure, though never knowing why. Now, thanks to some bizarre machinations from the film’s bad guys — again, the actual spy plot and secret weapon (called “The Big Mac”) story is a boring mess here — Archibald’s protection gets erased. Richard is forced to come out of hiding and become a father for the first time while Archie receives a crash course in espionage. There are glints of acceptable silliness, but in the end, the film’s not quite clever enough to carry us the full distance.
Tonally, speaking in ’90s terms, The Last Mercenary finds uneasy ground between the genre-bending laughs of True Lies and the ultra-camp of Hudson Hawk. The heart works more than the humor and ultimately the film is a valiant sputter. The message is warm and rewarding, the supporting cast is decent, but the end results just don’t pass full muster. Too many gags don’t land and when the comedy drags, and the film already has somewhat stale stakes, the entire effort spins out.
The Last Mercenary has bounding energy and a fun take on star Jean-Claude Van Damme’s past exploits as an action star, but the humor is way more miss than hit and the actual nuts-and-bolts spy plot is a trudge. It earns some marks for the cozy and well-meaning father/son reconciliation angle, but whenever the film sidetracks from that, it results in tedium.