Somewhat competent yet unremarkable, Assassination Games is another low-budget action-thriller of the well-worn hitman subgenre variety. The big draw of this otherwise undistinguished action fare is that it stars aging action icon Jean-Claude Van Damme and rising star Scott Adkins, both of whom are incredible fighters both on and off the screen. However, while Assassination Games is moderately entertaining throughout, director Ernie Barbarash and writer Aaron Rahsaan Thomas chose to craft not an all-out, cheesy action fiesta but rather a gritty revenge flick more concerned with melodrama, thus failing to capitalize on the phenomenal ass-kicking potential of an Adkins/Van Damme team-up.
Ever since his wife was gang-raped and beaten into a coma by unsavory gangster Polo (Kaye), world-class assassin Roland Flint (Adkins) has lived in self-imposed exile. Years later, an opportunity presents itself for Flint to exact revenge: Polo is being released from jail, and there’s a price on his head. Little does Flint realize, though, that he’s being set up by dirty Interpol agents who want to kill him and recover the money he stole from them. Added to this, another assassin named Brazil (Van Damme) is already committed to the Polo contract. After initially butting heads, Brazil and Flint realize that they can help one another, and decide to team up. Meanwhile, the shady Interpol agents opt to partner with Polo to further their own vendetta.
Assassination Games delivers in the action department from time to time, but writer Aaron Rahsaan Thomas ostensibly aspired to create something more than just another typical direct-to-DVD action film. Thus, the focus is not merely on the story’s inherent violent conflicts, but more on the protagonists’ inner turmoil, resulting in a higher volume of quiet dramatic scenes than action beats. Brazil and Flint are thoroughly clichéd (like the narrative in general), but it’s nonetheless somewhat laudable that an action film in this day and age at least tries to be more than a brainless action buffet. On the other hand, Thomas’ script is not nearly as skilful as it wanted to be, and the dramatic elements are routine, almost boring. Consider the “hooker with a heart of gold” subplot involving Brazil — we’ve seen it done before millions of times, and the film doesn’t do many new or interesting things with it. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher that such an utterly clichéd action film is so story-driven, character-focused and unwilling to let loose, and the realistic approach is all the more baffling due to how half-hearted and drab most of the drama is.
Reports place the film’s budget somewhere between $4 million and $8 million, so Assassination Games was shot on the cheap, and it shows. Like pretty much all low-budget direct-to-DVD action films, it was filmed in third world Eastern European locations, and is therefore visually flat, resulting in pacing issues. On the upside, director Barbarash and his team did not succumb to the dreaded “shaky-cam/quick-cutting” syndrome — the action scenes here are, for the most part, crisp and easy to decipher, not to mention pulse-pounding. It’s just that there are not enough of them. Since the bad guys make stupid decisions and cannot shoot straight, would it have been too much to ask for a larger group of gun fodder and a few more extended shootouts, or at least a competent fighter to give Adkins or Van Damme an exciting run for their money?
Now in his 50s, the weathered Jean-Claude Van Damme has aged gracefully, and he demonstrates here that, with suitable material, he can actually act to a decent extent. In Assassination Games, Van Damme was asked to play an emotionless assassin; a role befitting of his usually wooden line delivery. Alongside him, Scott Adkins is terrific as the skilled, vengeful assassin. Adkins was able to sell his part effortlessly, mixing incredible athleticism with genuine charisma. Assassination Games also benefits greatly from the chemistry between Adkins and Van Dammage — the pair are a terrific twosome of lethal killers. Outside of these two, though, there isn’t much acting skill to be found. Ivan Kaye is credible enough as gangster Polo, but nobody else makes much of an impression.
Despite tremendous potential, Assassination Games is not as brilliant as it could’ve been with a more generous budget and a better creative team. There are inspired flashes of kinetic action, but not enough. Barely ten or 15 minutes worth of combined action in a 100-minute movie like this simply doesn’t cut it, as the filmmakers were not competent enough to pull off a genuinely riveting story-driven revenge film; a feat they clearly strived to achieve.