Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career second wind, the one that showed up when he turned out to be pretty darned good at playing himself, a washed-up action star, in “JCVD,” has pretty much run its course.
He got a short-lived TV series and about a dozen years of B-movies out of that 2007 resuscitation. Watching him fade to black all over again has been painful for him and for us.
“We Die Young” is a new nadir, even for the star of too many awful “Kickboxer” sequels to count. It’s a reckless, ridiculous and borderline racist thriller about a silent man who fights against the infamous disgraced-ex-president/Fox News-hyped MS-13 gang to help a couple of kids escape Washington, D.C.
A gang leader even complains about his fears of “MAGAs” in one scene, just so you know the American-born Israeli documentary filmmaker Lior Geller’s politics.
Still, he films a nervy hand-held camera chase or two, and other unnecessary handheld and jumpy sequences to try and animate this corpselike thriller.
With a script that requires Van Damme to act without his voice — he plays a combat veteran managing his pain with legal and illegal drugs, “speaking” through a text-to-talk phone app — Geller pretty much reduces his star to an unemotional, inert supporting player.
That gives Geller free rein to dive into every Latin gang stereotype under the sun as we see a young drug runner Lucas (Elijah Rodriguez) try to save his even younger brother (Nicholas Sean Johnny) from that “life” and the influence of Shakespeare-quoting Salvadoran gang leader Rincon.
David Castañeda of “The Umbrella Academy” and the “Sicario” sequel plays Rincon with a flat menace that works for a scene or two, and bores for more that follow.
“I wasn’t always the biggest drug dealer in D.C.,” he tells his 14 year-old star delivery boy. “But I was the one who shot them!”
The story takes place over a couple of days on the “bad side” of D.C., with young Lucas, our narrator, scrambling to save his annoying sibling Miguel from being “jumped in” to the MS-13.That entails a group beat-down that the kid may survive, with a membership that follows that will almost certainly kill him.
As we’ve seen the boy persist in pursuing this, Lucas’s protests are to no avail, and make less sense than he thinks.
“It’s too late for me, but you’re smart.” No, he isn’t.
Van Damme’s drugged, battle-scarred veteran works in a body shop and is something of a neighborhood character — a soft touch for beggars, a pity case for a single mom (Joanna Metrass) who befriended the bullied, often-stoned “chavalo” in the ‘hood.
Events conspire to put Lucas, dragging his little brother, in the path of Daniel the Mute as the siblings try to escape Rincon and his minions.
We follow the kids mostly, identifying with their plight. Van Damme is just here for some sort of third act rescue, and is both misused and under-utilized in the process.
Geller embraces several racist Latin and Black tropes as he serves up his plate of ultraviolence. Rincon is a poorly-sketched-in character who loses the “color” invented for him (Shakespeare spoken through a face full of tattoos) and gives way to a lieutenant (Charlie MacGechan) who is less interesting, if more menacing.
The climax is a pitiless slaughter that suggests a “kill’em all, let Jesus sort’em out” ethos.
Still, the car and foot chases sparkle, even if the blur of edits undercut every other action beat, never letting the eye settle on an actor, an action or an emotion.
Rating: R for violence, language and some drug material
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, David Castañeda, Elijah Rodriguez, Joanna Metrass, Nicholas Sean Johnny and Charlie MacGechan
Credits: Scripted and directed by Lior Geller. A Lionsgate film on Netflix.
Running time: 1:32