Film Review: Black Water

1980s action icons Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are reunited in this by-the-numbers thriller destined for a quick theatrical stopover en route to home formats.
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CIA ace-in-the-hole Scott Wheeler (Jean-Claude Van Damme, also one of the film’s executive producers) wakes up on a bathroom floor and quickly learns that he’s imprisoned in the ultimate government black site: a secure cell in a submarine cruising 30,000 leagues beneath the sea. He has no idea why he’s there, but next-door cellmate Marco (Dolph Lundgren), who’s been there long enough that he’s stopped counting, suggests that if Wheeler has any ideas about getting out or even just staying sane, he needs to spend some quality time figuring out what he did to wind up in this watery hellhole... cue the feature-length flashback.

Suffice it to say that Wheeler is CIA and was charged with executing a mission that involved two thumb drives, one in his possession, the other in the hands of comely fellow agent Ballard (Courtney B Turk), who, shortly after they get to know each other in the biblical sense, winds up dead in the parking lot of a low-rent Alabama motel at the hands of a small army of guys with major guns. Once aboard the underwater Alcatraz, the only real questions become why legendary agent Wheeler is being treated like an enemy terrorist—yes, he’s a stone-cold killer, but he’s our stone-cold killer—who’s screwing over whom and how long it’s going to take Wheeler to clear a path to the surface.

Largely sold on the ’80s nostalgia of ‘Lundgren and Van Damme: Together Again!’ Dark Water isn’t a conspicuously terrible, formulaic action movie. It’s just a thoroughly forgettable formulaic action movie, though it does have the advantage of being set largely in a nightmarish locale, particular for anyone who hates enclosed spaces, water or both. And the submarine interiors are handsomely shot, with washes of light and tangles of pipes and machinery giving them a hellish funhouse vibe.

Screenwriter Chad Law—who’s turned out an impressive 14 produced action screenplays in ten years—knows the basic ingredients and they’re are all in place: the exotic location, the conspiracy that’s far bigger/wider/deeper/more sinister than it first appears, the two veteran tough guys you know are going to beat the bejesus out of those smug young guns who think they know everything about taking names and kicking ass.

And the elder action statesmen are still pretty impressive, given that Lundgren is 60 and Van Damme close behind; they’re significantly craggier, yes, and it appears that the Muscles from Brussels has finally abandoned those flashy 180% splits that make strong men cringe, but both are still kicking middle-age spread’s butt—for comparison, one need only look to their contemporary, Steven Seagal. This isn’t the movie that’s going to reignite their theatrical careers, but it’s also no black mark on their legacies—they’re still both convincingly tough enough to sell a fight scene, even in an era defined by post-production sweetening and rapid-fire editing.

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