Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The Shepherd: Border Patrol (2007)

This is for Street Fighter, asshole!

Not too long ago I saw Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing, a Direct-to-Video sequel for a might-as-well-have-been-Direct-to-Video Wesley Snipes action vehicle. I didn't have high expectations but it really surprised me with it's talented cast and solid action choreography. The director was a dude named Isaac Florentine and he brought an old-school sensibility to the action that is rare in modern action films and even rarer in Direct-to-Video. It was a throwback to Bloodsport style death-arena films, lots of shirtless musclemen and flashy spinning kicks, with solid choreography and editing that amped up the action rather than obscure it. Michael Jai White is a great leading man (strangely enough he doesn't play Wesley Snipes' character but instead the villain, played by Ving Rhames in the first film) and Florentine's frequent collaborator Scott Adkins impresses as the villain Yuri Boyka.

That film really made me sit up and take notice of Florentine, and The Shepherd: Border Patrol was his contribution to Van Damme's recent string of Direct-to-Video action films. I was a little worried because usually the effort involved in these kinds of films begins and ends with the acquisition of a "washed-up" action star, but when I saw a Special Forces commando take out a terrorist with a ricockulous spinning kick in the opening scene, I knew I was on to a winner.

Hollywood usually doesn't think twice about casting, say, an Austrian bodybuilder as a small-town North Carolina sheriff or a Scotsman as a Russian sub commander, but for some reason in Jean Claude Van Damme's films they always throw in some dialogue to explain his Francophone accent, which is usually anything except that he's from Belgium. Although my favourite is the one in Knock Off (he's an orphan in Hong Kong raised by French nuns) they usually fall into three categories:

a) He's from Quebec (Death Warrant, Nowhere to Run)
b) He's from New Orleans/Cajun (Hard Target, Universal Soldier)
c) His parents were French (Bloodsport, Double Impact)

Here they could have gotten away without an explanation because Van Damme barely speaks at all, but instead they go with option b). Thankfully he doesn't attempt a Cajun accent, so no hilarious "Why are you named Chance?" "My momma took won" type exchanges here.

Van Damme plays Jack Robideaux, a New Orleans cop sent to help out the New Mexico border patrol. Bulgaria is standing in for New Mexico and Mexico Classic, but some Mariachi music and dusty floors do little to convince. It looks fucking cold. Van Damme mysteriously carries around a caged rabbit (also named Jack) everywhere he goes and feeds it baby carrots, kind of one-upping Clive Owen's carrot-munching character from Shoot 'Em Up. The outside of the cage is covered in an American flag, for added patriotism. Naturally some bar toughs start making fun of him which results in some broken tables, chairs and tibulas.

Jack (the man, not the rabbit) is assigned to Captain Ramona Garcia (Natalie Robb) and given a wisecracking black partner Billy Pawnell (Gary McDonald). It's their job to hand out heaping handfuls of exposition like Halloween candy, save his ass during a climatic shootout and possibly betray him to the enemy at some point. It should also be noted that the border guard uniform makes Van Damme look really stocky and weird, so they have a gag where a cop spills coffee on him, necessitating a change back into his civvies.

Well, it turns out that the Special Forces unit we saw in the beginning of the film have gone rogue, and they are using their skills to kill drug kingpins and take over their smuggling operations. Because of their experiences in Afghanistan they strap explosive collars and suicide bomber vests to the drug couriers. I'm not really sure how that would work exactly, but it's a pretty good "Oh shit!" moment when Van Damme tackles a border-jumper and discovers he's strapped with a couple kilos of C4. I felt pretty sorry for the guy, especially when the bomb squad guy accidentally arms the bomb and then turns and runs for his life. That's a shit-your-pants moment right there.

One of the the best parts of the film is where the bad guys dress up as priests and try to smuggle drugs across the border in a customised bus full of nuns. Who knows where they got all the nuns from or where the nuns think they are going, but when a border guard notices a gang tattoo on one of the priests and gets suspicious, the bad guys push a button and mounted machine guns pop out of hidden compartments! This turns into a chase scene as the bus escapes back into Mexico. The police don't give a fuck either, they start blasting away and a bunch of nuns get caught in the crossfire. It's a great piece of action movie goofiness but there are two missed opportunities. Firstly, they never show a nun firing a machine gun and secondly, the bus doesn't explode.

Van Damme gets captured and taken to the drug smuggler's fancy mansion in Mexico and it turns out that one of the cops is working for the bad guys. Obviously it's either the captain or his partner, but I won't spoil it by telling you which. They also kill a minor character who we saw for maybe five seconds and it's pretty weird because they go to all of this trouble to kidnap this guy and smuggle him across the border, just so they could toss him into an electrified swimming pool as a demonstration of how serious they are. Van Damme escapes in time for a showdown with the second-in-command, played by Scott Adkins. This is probably the best fight in the film, Scott Adkins was awesome in Undisputed 2 and he's awesome here too. Afterward Van Damme fights the main villain Meyers (Stephen Lord) and it can't help but seem anti-climatic in comparison.

There are a few references throughout the film to Van Damme's traumatic past (bad dreams, insomnia etc) and it turns out to be part of a minor plot twist. You see, Van Damme's daughter died from a drug overdose and his transfer to border patrol was part of his one-man crusade of revenge against the drug dealers. The bad guys ask him, quite reasonably, why he goes all the way to New Mexico to single them out for extermination but they don't really get a satisfactory answer. Not sure if he'd already murdered his way up the food chain and these guys were next in line, but that sounds pretty cool so I'm going to go with that.

Then there's issue of the mysterious rabbit, the one that people have been asking about the entire movie. Did the rabbit had save his life by taking a bullet meant for him? Did it rescue him from kidnappers by chewing through some duct tape? Did it belong to his defeated arch-nemesis and he now looks after it as part of an honour-bound pact between worthy adversaries? Well no, actually, it used to belong to his daughter. She named it Jack because she thought it was funny. Cool story, bro! Glad you cleared that up.

The best part of this film is the one-two punch of director Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins. Maybe the action/talk ratio isn't as high as I would like, but the fight scenes are well staged and shot. I really think Scott Adkins is leading man material, and luckily Florentine is giving him the lead role in his contribution to the long-overdue Renaissance of ninja films, creatively titled Ninja. He's also playing the lead in Undisputed 3, continuing the tradition of having the villain of the previous film become the lead and find redemption in the next film. I hope that it becomes the theme of the franchise, it gives you a warm fuzzy feeling you know?

So as far as Direct-to-Video Van Damme goes, this is one of the best ones, although fans of sheep and/or shepherding should be warned that this film does not contain sheep, goats or bovidae of any kind.

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