Damme Does Different
If I was to tell you that Jean-Claude Van Damme puts in the best performance in "Until Death" you may say so what, the rest of the cast must be a bunch of nobodies. I doubt you can call Stephen Rea a nobody and Rea also puts in a good performance but is outshone by a very different Jean-Claude Van Damme. You see on paper "Until Death" sounds like a typical Van Damme movie, the bad cop looking for redemption after a near death experience but unlike your typical Van Damme movie it isn't just about the action, it is about Van Damme's conflicted character and he pulls it off in a surprisingly convincing manner. Van Damme is aided by a director, Simon Fellows, who rather than settling on doing the obvious tries to make the drama the focus of the movie rather than the action and he succeeds for well over half the movie.
Anthony Stowe (Jean-Claude Van Damme - Second in Command) is a cop with a problem, a nasty heroin problem which has turned him in to a vile man, unloving to his wife, blackmailed by cops who cover for him, reckless and untrustworthy. And to make matters worse the man Stowe is after, Gabriel Callaghan (Stephen Rea - Tara Road), was a former cop buddy turned gang leader who knows Stowe and his problems. When Stowe is almost killed whilst going after Callaghan he ends up in a coma for 6 months with little chance of coming back the same man, his wife has her boyfriend move in and the Chief discovers all about his drug addiction. So when Stowe eventually comes out of the coma and regains his ability to speak he sets out on a road of redemption to bring down Callaghan and win back the trust and love of his wife despite her carrying another man's baby.
As I said on paper "Until Death" reads like any typical Van Damme action movie and when it starts with a drug sting it has that feel of a typical Van Damme movie. But then very quickly you realise that this is going to be different because the entire first half is all about the character of Stowe and the despicable man he has become, uncaring to his wife, blackmailed by other cops and hiding a drug problem. Whilst this is going on we are drip fed bits of the bigger picture surrounding Callaghan and various other cops which keeps things interesting because we don't know how deep the corruption is.
Now in most Van Damme movies it would be in a hurry to set up the character of Stowe as being corrupt and then get him to the stage of redemption so we can champion him but here almost the entire first hour is devoted to Stowe's despicable state. And more surprising is that Van Damme pulls it off delivering a convincing performance of a man controlled by drugs and secrets, sweating, looking like he hasn't slept in weeks and generally a mess. I tell you after watching "Until Death" you won't think of Van Damme as just another old action star who can only do direct to video action movies because he shows here that he is much more than just that. And as I said he even manages to out act Stephen Rea who delivers a good performance as a bad guy, one who isn't just a walking cliche.
Having said all of that it has to be said that after the first hour and we get Stowe's recovery from the coma and the injury which almost killed him it does venture more towards what you expect from a Van Damme movie. Basically the second half builds to an action climax with Stowe getting to redeem himself for having become such a bad guy. But that doesn't mean the acting and drama stops because again Van Damme turns in a watchable performance in this second half, delivering the emotions of a man who realises what he had become.
What this all boils down to is that "Until Death" may on paper look like jus another Van Damme action movie but it is surprising because firstly it is more drama than action and secondly Van Damme delivers a surprisingly good characterisation of a cop turned bad. In fact it is so surprising that for those who watch "Until Death" for just another simple action flick may end up disappointed by the more thought out drama.