The Quest (1996)

Do you like tournament movies, the kind with a bunch of fighters from around the world taking on one another with different styles until only the last fighter remains? You know, like Bloodsport? Then you might end up enjoying this goofy period piece written by, starring, and directed by Jean-Claude Van Damme.

An old man enters a bar, beats up some attempted robbers, and tells the story about how he learned to fight. That’s the wrapper for the film, all while Van Damme in old man makeup drinks a cup of coffee. And it might also be a book…which might also be a book about buying luxury yachts. Because nothing makes me want to go boating like old people fist fighting.

But to the story within the story: Van Damme plays Christopher Dubois, a street artist and clown who cares for orphans in New York City. While escaping the cops, he passes out on a gunrunning ship, gets rescued by Sir Roger Moore playing a character named Dobbs along with his mate Harry, then gets dropped off on Muay Thai Island. He eventually runs back into Dobbs and Harry and tells them about a martial arts tournament held in the Lost City of Tibet. They team up with lady journalist Carrie Newton (Janet Gunn), convince boxer Maxie Devine (James Remar) that they’re his entourage, and head to the Lost City. Along the way, Van Damme beats up Remar and becomes an official entrant in the tournament. Fights ensue, along with hijinks, and Van Damme eventually ends up having to battle a massive man mountain representing Mongolia for the prize of rescuing Dobbs and Harry from being executed.

We are then treated to sepia tone photos as old man Van Damme reveals what happens to several characters but doesn’t say anything about the lady journalist. It’s implied she wrote a book about the trip which also doubles to sell us yachts. I mean it, pause the film at the end while the book is open and read the page, it is in fact an add to buy a yacht.

The most important question you should ask yourself is whether it’s basically Bloodsport again, and yes, it’s basically Bloodsport. A bunch of fighters from around the world participate in a tournament. A friend of Van Damme’s gets killed while fighting the big bad Mongolian beef mountain. Van Damme stares into the camera and occasionally makes faces. Black people get short shrift again, now representing the whole country of “Africa” much like the one black dude in Bloodsport. There is slow motion in ridiculous places. And the secret tournament is held in East Asia, with the Lost City of Tibet now the home as opposed to Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong.

There are a couple of changes, such as the film now being a period piece set in the 1920s, and the fighters are surprisingly Euro-centric. While China, Japan, Okinawa, Mongolia, Siam, and Korea are all represented, so are France, Spain, Germany, Scotland, Greece, and the continental border nations Turkey and the Soviet Union. Van Damme represents the US, and there is a fighter from South America representing Brazil specifically, as opposed to that one guy from Africa. That’s three fighters representing three continents, but two of them get specific countries. How hard would it have been just to pick a country that existed in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1920s and just say that’s where this dude was from? Come on, put in at least a little effort.

Of course, these kinds of ridiculous tournament fight movies didn’t start with Bloodsport. The crazy representations of fighters from around the world could be seen in the 1976 martial arts film Master of the Flying Guillotine, which was far more crazy and ridiculous than seeing a sumo wrestler get a lot of jiggly sound effects, even if those sound effects are way over the top in The Quest. But if you wanted movie version of some of the crazy world-based fighting games like Street Fighter II, World Heroes, or the numerous non-Japanese characters of Samurai Shodown, here you go.

Of course, with Van Damme as a new director, money problems, and a cast that didn’t always get along, The Quest had a lot of problems behind the scenes. Frank Dux sued Van Damme over the film and claimed it was a rehash of a script the two had written together; the WGA even sided with Dux, so he receives a writer credit despite not winning the lawsuit. Sir Roger Moore also didn’t like the general disorganization, Van Damme’s directing, or producer Moshe Diamant’s methods (he tried to make the crew work for free. They laughed at him). Moore considered this his least favorite role, possibly in no small part because actor Jack McGee who played Moore’s partner in crime had a tendency to fart loudly after every scene. Hey, the crew loved it.

As for the fighters, they mainly consisted of stuntmen, martial artists, and even several professional wrestlers. Koji Kitao, the sumo wrestler in the film, was a sumo wrestler in real life. Both Abdel Qissi, the Mongolian fighter, and Peter Malota, the Spanish fighter, did multiple films with Van Damme. While I didn’t find Qissi as memorable as Bolo Yeung in Bloodsport, that’s not exactly an easy role to beat, and Qissi and Yeung are the only two actors to ever appear as Van Damme’s main bad guy in more than one film.

Critics disliked the film, though they did enjoy Roger Moore’s performance, and if you like different styles of combat, watching the Chinese combatant swap between different Kung Fu styles for each fight or the Brazilian fighter swaying through his Capoeira to the beat of the drums is a joy. Even the brief moments for the Greek fighter to attempt Greco-Roman wrestling moves is a treat. The Quest is a film for people that just like seeing global martial arts styles on film. Granted, most of the Europeans look like boxers and street fighters, but hey, who doesn’t love seeing folks simply throwing punches and kicks for the fun of it?

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