Should I Watch..? 'The Quest'
What's the big deal?
The Quest is a period martial-arts film released in 1996 and is the directorial debut of its star, Jean-Claude Van Damme. The film revolves around the unlikely partnership between a young American fighter and an English aristocrat adventurer to secure the top prize at a fighting tournament held in deepest Tibet. The film also stars Roger Moore, James Remar, Janet Gunn and Jack McGee. The film was the subject of a lawsuit by martial-arts legend Frank Dux who claimed the film was a rewrite of a script of his own, although his case was dismissed. Despite a mostly negative reception from critics who felt the film was essentially a remake of Van Damme's earlier film Bloodsport, the film was a modest success at the box office with global takings around $57.4 million.
What's it about?
An old man defends the bar he's drinking in from a group of hoodlums and recounts his story to the astonished bartender. Back in 1925, Christopher Dubois was a street-wise pickpocket scraping a living off the streets of New York. After a run-in with the law, Dubois finds himself stowing away on a ship used by gun-runners. Once he's discovered, Dubois is forced into slave labour until he is rescued one day by pirates led by English adventurer Lord Edgar Dobbs who is amazed by Dubois' fighting tenacity.
Abandoning Dubois on an island off the coast of Siam, Dobbs and his man-servant Harry return six months later to find Dubois highly skilled in Muay Thai after being taught by the island's natives. Sensing an opportunity, Dobbs convinces Dubois to enter an international fighting tournament held in a lost city in Tibet where the prize is a dragon sculpture made from solid gold. Along for the ride are American journalist Carrie Newton and heavyweight boxing champ Maxie Devine but will Dubois find success and at what cost?
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Lord Edgar Dobbs
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Steve Klein & Paul Mones*
Release Date (UK)
20th September, 1996
What's to like?
Although the film's narrative is unbelievably predictable and corny in the extreme, The Quest is an unusual film because the film itself is more interested than the events it depicts. Someone somewhere felt that a period martial-arts film with JCVD and James Bond was going to be a sure-fire hit whereas you and I realise that the combination is about as appealing as a leper with bronchitis. It's such an awkward mix of stars and styles that the film has a morbid fascination like a car crash you can't take your eyes off.
For fans of the Muscles From Brussels, the second half of the film is where it's at because it mostly abandons the paper-thin narrative and focuses on the skills of its star. Sure enough, the fight scenes have plenty to enjoy for those who enjoy a bit of rough-and-tumble and JCVD's talents aren't really up for debate. He kicks, punches and jumps his way through a number of fighters who all have different styles although I'm struggling to think of what fighting styles could emerge from places like Germany and Scotland by their representatives at the tournament. Drunken fighting, perhaps?
- Although Frank Dux lost the lawsuit, he did win a story credit from the Writers Guild Of America. Dux claimed that he and Van Damme worked on a script called Enter The New Dragon but Van Damme claimed that these were separate projects.
- The islands that Dobbs leave Dubois at should have been familiar to Moore - they were actually the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand where Moore filmed as Bond in The Man With The Golden Gun in 1974.
- Moore claimed in his autobiography that the film was running out of money and highly disorganised. Many of the crew were asked to work for free as the money dried up but they laughed at the film-makers and threatened to strike. Mysteriously, money was then found to finish the film which Moore admitted was the least favourite in his career.
What's not to like?
The Quest is, unfortunately, about as interesting and inspired as its dull title. The film relies on tired 'fighting tournament' clichés to get it over the finishing line while the first half of the film, detailing Dubois' various misadventures escaping from the law in New York (which is completely forgotten about by the end) is utterly ridiculous. Moore's appearance feels completely out of place, as though he only agreed to the project with a gun held to his head. Naturally, he drops in plenty of in-jokes about his past career as 007 - he introduces himself as "Dobbs. Edgar Dobbs" - and raises that famous eye-brow of his. Between him, Van Damme and the largely anonymous supporting cast, there is a distinct lack of personality in the film.
The film is the very definition of forgettable with nothing of note happening during the picture, no flashes of originality or inspiration anywhere to give the audience a reason for watching. Even if you haven't watched Bloodsport (which I confess I haven't), the whole 'fighting tournament' aspect has been seen in dozens of other martial-arts films and I've never understood the point. As a viewer, we know that our hero is inevitably going to triumph and it's such a lazy device to pitch one fighter against another in combat - do the organisers of this tournament give away a giant golden dragon every time they hold the contest? What exactly do they get out of the set-up? How does everyone know how to get to this 'lost city' in Tibet if it's lost? What story did the reporter feel was going to get her a Pulitzer prize? Frankly, there wasn't much of a story in a 95-minute movie so God only knows what she was thinking.
And why was the whole thing a flashback? So many questions...
Should I watch it?
The only people who will show any interest in The Quest are die-hard fans of Van Damme and masochistic critics who can't believe the existence of a film helmed by such an odd couple. Otherwise, this is depressingly familiar fare with nothing exceptional happening at any point in the movie. There are no laughs, no tension, no thrills and no excitement - the film disappears from memory as quickly as it did from Moore's CV.
Great For: Van Damme fans, undemanding action lovers, the truly curious, DIY commentaries
Not So Great For: martial-arts fans, Van Damme's directing career (he didn't sit in that seat again until 2014), general action fans
What else should I watch?
Jean-Claude Van Damme might not be an A-list action star any more but he has had some notable successes in the past. Apart from his breakout performance in Bloodsport, he also starred in one of the biggest international films of the year in 1992's Universal Soldier as well as the equally successful Timecop, JCVD's highest earning film so far. After the farcical and poorly received Street Fighter, his career began to show signs of stagnation with box office bombs like The Quest and another film with an unlikely co-star, Double Team with North Korea-loving basketball star and facial-piercing enthusiast Dennis Rodman. Frankly, until his appearance as the villain in The Expendables 2, he had more or less dropped off the radar and resorted to straight-to-DVD fluff and commercials.
Van Damme became a star of studio Cannon Films alongside luminaries like Chuck Norris, Charles Brosnan and B-movie specialist Michael Dudikoff. With B-movie classics such as American Ninja, Invasion USA, Cyborg and The Delta Force, the studio specialised in low-budget action films that were extremely popular in the Eighties. However, the studio had gone bankrupt and by 1994 had ceased production - their final theatrically released film Hellbound was a supernatural thriller starring Norris was certainly no classic. According to one critic, all the film did was demonstrate the fact that Cannon were willing to throw money at any project, regardless of how ramshackle the production and how badly it was planned.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox