I noticed already in Replicant how Van Damme had raised the bar for what he could deliver, but it wasn’t until Wake of Death until I really understood that he truly transformed himself to a great actor. He’s always been charming and charismatic of course, but the scripts never rose above good. Van Damme has a tendency to look very haunted, even when he was younger, behind that boyish smile. Compared to his fellow action actors he often smiled, played good-hearted guys, not really the form of machismo made popular with the old conservative muscle bulls of Hollywood. Van Damme dared – and still dares – to be a softie, to be human. That’s why I like him so much.
JCVD is Ben Archer, a small time gangster and thug, working at clubs and bars. Every day is packed with violence and threats and he’s getting tired being harassed. So he tells his boss he wants to retire, but happiness doesn’t last long until his wife is brutally killed by some Hong Kong criminals, led by the Sun Quan (Simon Yam). Why? His daughter has escaped and is now taking shelter with the Archer-family! Destroyed by sorrow and anger, Ben builds up all the power he has and goes on a violent revenge-fuelled killing-spree!
Wake of Death, with the silly artwork and boring title, is a French-German-US-something co-production shot in South Africa. When I first saw it and did my research I heard rumors of a plagued and troubled production, maybe even a change of director just before the shooting started. This could be a fake memory, but anyway, whatever happened on the set it doesn’t show in the movie. Instead Wake of Death is a very stylish, dark (literary dark, it’s so black!) and violent revenge-drama. And when I saw drama I mean it. The first half is more talk and emotions and less action, which also showcases the fine acting talents of Van Damme. He truly gives it all, and it’s a touching story unfolding; A middle-aged man seeing his life crumbling around him, while still have violence in his blood and it’s obviously the only solution he can come up with.
When the violence hits it’s nasty as hell. Not as graphic as, for example, Universal Soldier: The Day of Reckoning, but much of the aggressive power comes from the drawn-out torture, bloody squibs (Burt Kwouk of all people gets shot in a scene!), violent kick in the heads and the cool stunts involving motocross’s and cars. It’s not a light-hearted film, not the typical DTV film to watch after a hard day of work for the regular Joe. Even the finale, which could have been something more spectacular, becomes a more realistic, almost sad show between two violent men. I also like how Ben Archer suddenly, during a kill, loses power and it seems he’s close to crying, like he suddenly understands the pointlessness of killing someone.
Wake of Death is a deeply underrated film. It’s one of the highlights of Van Damme’s later career. It’s not one of those fun martial arts romps, it feels more like something Gaspar Noé would direct if he was forced in the magical word of direct to dvd action flicks. And that’s not a bad thing.