I don’t know if Sylvester Stallone forced them to step up their game, or if they all got together and had a meeting and decided to start putting more effort into this shit or what but lately all the old ’80s and ’90s action stars who are in exile on the small screen have started doing a better job. Seagal’s had a couple good ones in a row, Dolph’s have been watchable, Van Damme had that movie where he was a heroin junkie. None of these are yet matching the full potential of DTV, but at least they’re getting there. The latest in the trend is Van Damme’s double-titled THE SHEPHERD: BORDER PATROL.
I will go ahead and give the credit for this one not to Van Damme but to the director Isaac Florentine. I will have to investigate the guy’s works further but if he has anymore as good as this one and UNDISPUTED II then I think he must be one of the top DTV directors. He’s an Israeli martial artist who came to the U.S. and directed POWER RANGERS shows for years and then got into DTV movies like US SEALS II. And as far as the DTV directors go he has a real good style. His movies have hard-hitting martial arts scenes that are well staged, he uses some energetic but not hyperactive editing and camera angles to keep things moving and he has some odd touches here that suggest a sense of humor.
In this one Van Damme plays a New Orleans cop who has just transfered to the New Mexico Border Patrol. He’s introduced driving a car, shaving, and sharing carrots with a rabbit. His name is Jack and that is also the name of his rabbit, who he carries in a cage with him for much of the movie. So he’s got some little quirks that make him different from your standard issue Van Damme character. Also he looks funny in the uniform. The villain also has some eccentricities. He was a soldier in Afghanistan who got disillusioned after watching a suicide bomber explode, and now he leads a gang of ex-special forces soldiers in smuggling drugs over the border. Because of his experiences he uses suicide vests and explosive collars in his work. In one scene there are a bunch of topless babes in a pool and he keeps lighting small sticks of dynamite with his cigar and tossing them into the pool. A fun time.
Some of the writing seems terrible. There’s lots of badly delivered exposition dialogue. And unless I misunderstood something there was one pretty funny screwup during a border patrol briefing. They show a picture of the bad guy and say that the smugglers are all former American soldiers who have served with “this man”, but they don’t know his name. How do they not know his name if they know they all served with him? Or how do they know they all served with him if they don’t know his name? So in that sense it’s a bad script but in the sense that it’s a story that has lots of fun goofy touches and that doesn’t always go in the direction you expect it is actually a good script. And since I enjoy pointing out some ridiculousness in my DTV I will forgive that part and say that this is in fact a good script.
So these two characters are sort of facing off, and various adventures happen. Van Damme’s character doesn’t drink, but he does like to go to the bar for a Coke and cheeseburger, so of course he gets in a fight and some chairs are damaged. He also ends up in a Mexican jail where he is forced to fight their mixed martial arts champion just like Michael Jai White was in the Russian prison in UNDISPUTED II. And he has flashbacks that reveal his true motives: his daughter was killed by drugs, so he’s on a DEATH WISH 4 style crackdown against drug smugglers.
The soundtrack is going for a Mexicano flavor, and they even (unwisely I think) use the same song “Don’t Look Back” that was used memorably in another bordertown bar fight scene in DESPERADO. But it’s funny because the movie was filmed in Bulgaria so they never get that hot, dusty feel the music seems to imply. There’s even snow on the ground sometimes! One of the characters makes a joke about it: “Bet you didn’t expect to freeze your ass off in New Mexico.”
I think the movie reaches its peak in the middle section when the villains are disguised as priests, trying to smuggle their dope over the border in a bus full of real nuns and priests. When a border guard gets suspicious seeing a scorpion tattoo on the finger of a priest they press a button and mounted machine guns come out of the top and sides of the bus! So it turns into a big chase and shootout, and nuns get shot and everything. At this point I thought it might be the rebirth of Craig R. Baxley. Finally a DTV director who can do decent action scenes and combine them with a lunatic spirit and do it all with a straight face. The movie doesn’t manage to keep escalating and live up the “instant classic” promise of a scene like that, but it does continue to be entertaining, so good job fellas.
One complaint I do have – and it’s pretty obvious to anyone who watches the movie – the secondary villain is way better than his boss. Scott Adkins, the badass martial artist who played the Russian champion in UNDISPUTED II returns to the Florentineverse and has a couple great fights in this one. When Van Damme has finally defeated him he’s beaten to hell, covered in blood and he sits down on the ground looking like he’s about to pass out from exhaustion, and suddenly the main bad guy is standing there and he realizes he has to fight him too. It’s a great “oh shit” moment but since that guy isn’t much of a fighter and he doesn’t have to actually combat him like he did with Adkins it’s anticlimactic. Hopefully Adkins will get some more respect one of these days.
Before I finish up I want to address the title. I’m not sure why it’s called that. It kind of sounds like it’s part of a series, but it seems like BORDER PATROL would be the series. At first I was real confused because why the fuck is Van Damme a shepherd? Is he shepherding the bunny? But I asked about it in a talkback and was pointed out the obvious that The Shepherd is the bad guy, shepherding drugs across the border. So why does the bad guy get the title? I don’t get it.
Anyway, this is a fine DTV production that fulfills its promise of showing Van Damme fight more than he usually does these days and manages to throw in other good touches along the way. Especially if you like bunnies.