Two years after Seagal jumped the shark with On Dangerous Ground, Jean-Claude Van Damme was still riding high on the second tier action star wave. Then he went full Breen by writing, directing and starring in a movie that Roger Moore considered the worst he ever appeared in. That's the Roger Moore who was in Spice World. And Bullseye. And Fire, Ice & Dynamite...
Country: USA/Canada | Runtime: 95m | Director: Jean-Claude Van Damme
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Roger Moore, James Remar, Janet Gunn, Jack McGee
What happens: New York, 1925. Christopher Dubois (Van Damme) is a vagrant street clown and self-appointed guardian to dozens of orphans. After antagonising both the police and local criminal community, he's forced to stow away on a ship smuggling weapons out of the US. Eventually he is tricked by English con artist Lord Edgar Dobbs (Moore) and sold to legendary Muay Thai trainer Khao (Aki Aleong). Six months later, Dobbs and his associate Harri Smythe (McGee) encounter Dubois fighting in Bangkok and, together with Carrie Newton (Gunn), an American reporter looking for a story, they hatch a plan to attend a secret martial arts tournament and steal a priceless statue awarded to the winner. To that end they team up with Maxie Devine (Remar), an American heavyweight boxing champion invited to compete in the tournament, and travel together to Tibet (this is all within the first half hour). Devine realises Dubois is the better fighter, gives him his invitation, and supports him in his progress through the early rounds. Dobbs and Smythe are caught trying to steal the statue. After winning the tournament Dubois exchanges the statue for Dobbs and Smythe's freedom for some reason.
"I don't work for nobody."
The Quest supposedly began life as a script co-written by Van Damme and Frank Dux, the American martial artist whose alleged exploits inspired the former’s breakthrough hit Bloodsport. Kumite: Enter the New Dragon was originally lined up to follow Universal Soldier, but a falling out between the two ‘authors’ scuttled the project. When The Quest appeared in theatres sporting a distinctly similar plot, Dux, understandably, sued. Although the case was thrown out of court, the Writers Guild of America upheld Dux's complaint and awarded him a credit. Based on such a principle the writers of half Van Damme's previous movies should also have been credited for The Quest. It begins with fighters receiving mysterious invitations to a secretive tournament that seems carefully calibrated to showcase all martial art styles and nationalities (so… Bloodsport, then). Our hero escapes the authorities in order to help loved ones in need, only to wind up trapped in penury and forced to fight (Lionheart). Ultimately he is trained in Muay Thai by an old sage, before his final fight is made personal by the villainous Khan’s unnecessarily brutal beating of a friend/brother (Kickboxer). Khan is even played by Abdel Qissi, who was the villain in Lionheart and is the brother of Michel Qissi who played Tong Po in Kickboxer. These movies are incestuously interwoven on every level, the only thing unique about The Quest is the shoddy adventure nonsense clumsily nailed to it.
"The best fighters will meet in secret for the big dragon made of sun gold."
Because The Quest is so similar to Van Damme’s earlier, better movies, there are handy reminders of all the things it gets wrong. We don't care about the fighter whose death motivates Dubois because we’re never introduced to him. With no dialogue, and only a few minutes screen time, the villain (whose name might never be mentioned) is a poor antagonist. Nothing is done to establish how the ‘romance’ could have developed, or why Dubois gives away the mcguffin to save a man who repeatedly betrays him, these things just happen because… that’s what movies do. The only thing that really works is Dobbs. Moore is very funny as a sleazy hustler, and it’s almost disappointing to learn he considered this his worst movie. He looks like he’s having a ball.
"These men have committed a great sacrilege against this competition."
From an egosploitation perspective The Quest is surprisingly tame. Van Damme is not known for his humility but, unlike Seagal, he gives himself less screen time and dialogue than he might enjoy in one of his regular action vehicles. His dialogue, however, isn't as sparse as that of love interest Carrie Newton, who doesn't get a single line during the last act in spite of being in half the scenes. The parallels with Joan Chen's character in On Deadly Ground are striking. That fact highlights one of the many crimes committed by egosploitation movies in general, and these B-actioners in particular: the female lead is underwritten, and undervalued, to the point of it being offensive. The only thing Van Damme and Seagal seem to know about female characters is that there has to be one, and she has to fall in love with them. Neither woman has any function within the plot, and there’s no believable scenario that justifies them falling for the hero. Other common factors are no less obvious. In On Deadly Ground and The Quest our protagonist is a man of the people, a supposedly down-to-earth sort who seems dedicated to sticking up for the defenceless (each movie features a scene in which they take on a gang of toughs bullying someone vulnerable). And both directors seem preoccupied with lauding the culture and decency of a downtrodden minority group, but do it in such a clumsy and distant way that it seems at best patronising and at worst racist.
EGOWATCH: Everyone in New York is a heartless bastard apart from Dubois, who is adored by all. With just six months training, he becomes the best fighter in the world. Even before his training, he can single-handedly take out a gang of career fighters. He is irresistible to the only woman in the movie. He favours forgiveness over wealth.
Not as funny as On Deadly Ground, but there's a warm heart pumping cheese through The Quest's veins.