I loved the 1980s. The decade produced some of history’s best “bad” martial arts movies—genre flicks that are critically panned but commercially loved. Think Steven Seagal’s Above the Law, Michael Dudikoff’s American Ninja and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport. Looking back, I find these movies so amazingly cheesy that I’m surprised Kraft Foods hasn’t started packaging them with its macaroni. But I loved them when I was a kid, and I still get a kick out of watching them today.
So I was keen on viewing Jean-Claude Van Damme’s The Shepherd: Border Patrol, the latest project from one of our biggest ’80s screen heroes. Released straight to DVD by Sony Pictures, it’s definitely a throwback to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s martial arts movies with its paper-thin plot and emphasis on action. But it has modern twists, incorporating issues like illegal immigration, drug smuggling and the consequences of Middle East violence on American soldiers.
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Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Jack Robideaux, a former New Orleans cop who becomes a Border Patrol agent to stop former Special Forces soldiers from smuggling Mexican drugs into the United States. This simple yet potent premise sounds like the perfect blueprint to craft the kind of powerful Van Damme movie not seen in the past 20 years.
Unfortunately, rather than using the heart-wrenching social aspects and incorporating them into an action-packed thriller, The Shepherd glosses over the potential substance and aims for style. Too bad that style is the cinematic equivalent of worn jeans and a T-shirt instead of an Armani suit. With a budget that was reportedly $13 million, it should have been a lot more visually impressive.
Fortunately, director Isaac Florentine, who has an extensive karate background and spent years helming Power Ranger episodes, effectively captures J.J. Perry’s progressive fight choreography, which is a mix of aerial kicks, flashy grappling and realistic street fighting. Together, they stage a short but thrilling set piece that’s the best reason to see The Shepherd: a showdown between the “Muscles from Brussels” and his heir-apparent, Scott Adkins (Undisputed II). Their battle is a highlight reel of spinning and jumping kicks, with Van Damme representing the balletic old-school techniques and Adkins showing off the new extreme style of acrobatic footwork.
Unfortunately, the gunplay looks fake, the screenplay is predictable and the characters practice very little common sense. For example, Jean-Claude Van Damme chases the drug smugglers into Mexico without backup and gets captured. Then his boss sneaks south of the border without any backup to try to save him. Guess what? She gets captured, too.
So is The Shepherd a really good “bad” martial arts movie or just plain bad? Neither, actually. Instead, it straddles the fence, sitting comfortably in average territory—which is a shame because Jean-Claude Van Damme’s 2001 Replicant shows that he’s capable of delivering classic ’80s “Van Dammage” even as he approaches the half-century mark.
(Patrick Vuong is a journalist, screenwriter and martial artist based in Orange County, California.)