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Indie Snapshot: On the Waterfront

by Ethan Alter January 24, 2014 6:00 am
Indie Snapshot: On the Waterfront

Fed up with that Polar Vortex? Put yourself in a warm weather state of mind with the lakeside thrillers Enemies Closer and Stranger by the Lake.

Jean-Claude Van Damme has been around long enough to age into the role of the flamboyant, scenery-chewing villain he used to beat up in his younger days. The transformation started when he took on Sly Stallone and the rest of his over-the-hill Expendables in the second installment in that franchise and continued in the fourth Universal Soldier flick, Day of Reckoning, which recast his previously heroic genetically-enhanced G.I. Joe as a Colonel Kurtz-like crazy person. Now, the enjoyably derivative action flick Enemies Closer -- which reteams the Muscles from Brussels with Peter Hyams, director of Timecop and Sudden Death and father of John Hyams, who helmed Day of Recknoning -- gifts him with his kookiest bad guy yet: a French-Canadian drug runner and environmentalist who, I kid you not, initially strides into the movie dolled up as a Mountie. Just imagine how much better the live action version of Dudley Do-Right might have been if they had gone with Van Damme instead of Brendan Fraser. (Okay, maybe "better" isn't the right word, but it certainly would have been more entertaining.)

Sadly, he doesn't stay in that dashing red-and-black ensemble for long. You see, it's all a ruse to fool the law enforcement folks on the U.S. side of the Canadian/American border where the film takes place; a plane carrying Van Damme's latest drug shipment crash-landed in the lake that runs through the two countries and he and his team would like to recover the lost goods without any stalwart hero-types getting in their way. To that end, they kill most of the cops in the immediate vicinity, but one dude -- an ex-Navy SEAL turned forest ranger who Van Damme would have played had this movie been made twenty years ago, but is instead portrayed by Tom Everett Scott, long past his teen idol days -- is still hanging around, largely because he's being held at gunpoint by the revenge-minded brother (Orlando Jones) of one of the SEALs who accidentally died under his command.

Needless to say, the circumstances dictate that Jones and Scott put aside their differences and team up to take down Van Damme's gang, saving the big boss for last. Clearly made on the cheap, Enemies Closer compensates for its rough edges (which include the same stiff acting and wooden dialogue intrinsic to most low budget action pictures) with fluid fight scenes -- the best of which is a tree top brawl between Scott and Van Damme… or, to be more accurate, their stunt guys -- and spirited performances by Van Damme and Jones, still enjoying his Sleepy Hollow-fueled career resurgence as the no-nonsense you want on your side in a fight with drug dealers/supernatural creatures. (Scott, meanwhile, is as flat and awkward here as Van Damme was in his early movies -- that's the curse of playing the hero.) And while Hyams Sr. lacks his son's interest in showcasing different fighting styles or wandering away from established genre patterns (seriously, who else would have thought to treat a Universal Soldier movie like Apocalypse Now?), his no-muss, no-fuss approach makes Enemies Closer an agreeable way to kill 80 minutes.

For an artier, but still highly entertaining take on a lakeside thriller, look to the French sensation Stranger by the Lake, which made a big splash when it premiered at Cannes last year due to its odd, but effective mingling of Hitchockian suspense with Bertolucci-style sexual frankness. Pierre Deladonchamps plays Franck, a young gay man whose favorite summertime hang-out spot is a secluded lake where guys of all ages and body types sunbathe and swim in the buff, occasionally retiring to the surrounding woods for some one-on-one (and sometimes two-on-two or three-on-one… you get the idea) time. An experienced cruiser, he's set his sights on one guy in particular: Michel (Christophe Paou), a handsome charmer with a mustache that would make Magnum P.I.-era Tom Selleck proud. Beyond his looks, Michel also has a slightly dangerous edge that entrances Franck… though he doesn't realize just how dangerous his crush object is until he's the accidental witness to -- dun dun dun -- a murder most foul. Rather than hightail it to another orgiastic spot, Franck keeps coming back to the scene of the crime and begins an affair with Michel in earnest, against the advice of a portly bisexual pal (Patrick D'Assumçao) and despite the probing questions of a suspicious detective tasked with investigating the crime.

Much of Stranger's festival circuit notoriety stems from its explicit (and, in several cases, non-simulated) sex scenes and copious full-frontal male nudity. Far from feeling like an attention-grabbing gimmick, though, these scenes play an essential role in establishing the atmosphere of the film's central setting. The lake is a place of uninhibited freedom for Franck and the other men who spend their days lounging by the water, but that freedom carries with it an element of risk that alternately unnerves and excites our naïve protagonist. Through precise framing (the murder itself is particularly striking, filmed all in one take and at a distance) and an unhurried pace, director Alaine Guiraudie orchestrates the movie's evolution from drama to thriller effectively and with just the right touch of humor. (Wit was the crucial weapon in Hitchock's arsenal that latter-day wanna-be Master of Suspenses tend to forget about or botch outright.) Though it'll be confined to the art house circuit, Stranger By the Lake actually has all the ingredients of a mainstream, page-turning summer beach read: a picturesque backdrop, a likeable hero, a murder and a liberal dash of sex.

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