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Review: 'Black Water' is a murky mess

Posted Tuesday, August 21, 2018 at 10:58 AM Central
Last updated Tuesday, August 21, 2018 at 11:00 AM Central

by John Couture

A Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dolph Lundgren matchup was to the 1990s what a Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger matchup would have been to the 1980s. Sadly, the Stallone/Schwarzenegger would have to wait a couple of decades to come to fruition, but Van Damme and Lundgren would consummate an action fan boy's wildest dream when they squared off in Universal Soldier.

Since then, they have squared off in a couple of Universal Soldier sequels, but have never teamed up directly. OK fine, they did appear together in The Expendables 2 (with both Stallone and Schwarzenegger), but that hardly counts. If you were in an action film in the 1980s and 1990s and still had a heartbeat, you were cast in The Expendables 2.

So, this year's Black Water presented the long-time action rivals to finally take center stage in a team up for the ages. Sadly though, the results were all sizzle and very little meat.

Jean-Claude Van Damme takes the lead role as a deep cover CIA agent who finds himself a prisoner on a submarine that also serves as a CIA black site. A rogue faction in the CIA is after a flash drive and activation key that combine to reveal how to activate special agents. Of course, that's all just setup for the action sequences as Van Damme and Lundgren team up to attempt to escape the submarine and prevent the sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands.

If this film sounds familiar, then you might be thinking of Under Siege from fellow contemporary action star Steven Seagal. In fact, the filmmakers probably could have edited in footage from Under Siege and I wouldn't have noticed.

There are several issues that I had with Black Water, not the least of which was that despite being billed as co-starring, Dolph Lundgren's total screen time perhaps added up to 10 minutes. That might be a stretch as he really didn't do much until the third act other than appear in a few interstitial teases to remind us that he's also on the submarine and at some point, we would get that payoff that we were promised.

Another niggling thing that bugged me relentlessly is that they didn't even try to make the sets appear to be anything resembling an actual submarine. The whole idea of having an action film set upon a submarine is to introduce a claustrophobic element that we rarely get in shoot-em-up films given most filmmakers' desire to showcase as much action as possible. But no, this must be a submarine that got a facelift from any of a number of HGTV shows. There are 10-foot ceilings and spacious passageways, which are convenient when trying to explain while our aging heroes are able to nimbly dodge bullets.

If you take a film like The Hunt For Red October or Das Boot, you get a real appreciation for the tension that claustrophobia can add to a film. Unfortunately, the filmmakers opted for something more cinematic or simply didn't care when they were setting up their shots. It's sad because I do think this film would have been better served with cramped quarters that could have ratcheted up the tension.

As for the action sequences themselves, Van Damme and Lundgren are at least game at making them work even if they aren't quite the spring chickens they once were. Particularly, Jean-Claude flashes several hints at the signature moves that made him an action stud in the late 1980s and 1990s. This is good since he is carrying large swaths of the film by himself. But when finally called upon, fans of Dolph Lundgren will not be disappointed to learn that he hasn't lost much of his trademark swagger.

But attitude only goes so far. Black Water is a promising concept that unfortunately never reaches its potential. It promises one thing and delivers something altogether different. It's not as simple as pointing to one thing to lay all of the blame on, but rather the film dies from the collection blood loss of a million paper cuts.

Black Water is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.