In 1996, having established himself as a poor actor with limited range, Jean-Claude Van Damme set out to prove he could also be bad at directing. The result of his quest was “The Quest,” an semi-coherent chunk of cinema about a secret martial-arts tournament. It’s a lot like “Bloodsport,” which Van Damme was also in, as well as “Mortal Kombat,” which Van Damme was somehow accidentally not in.
As a special bonus, “The Quest” begins with JCVD in old-age makeup! He is a dapper elderly gentleman with a walking stick who enters a bar late one night and reluctantly beats up knife-wielding punks who try to rob the place. “Where’d you learn to fight like that?” asks the awestruck bartender. JCVD replies, “It was a long time ago…” Then he tells us the movie.
The actual story is set in 1925. (This makes JCVD’s butt-kicking in that bar scene all the more impressive, since the character would have to be in his 90s.) Van Damme’s name is Chris DuBois, and in 1925 he is a New York City street clown who commands a legion of pickpocketing urchins, Fagin-style. Pursued by the cops one evening, Chris DuBois bravely runs to the docks and hides on a ship departing for the Orient. He is discovered mid-passage and is almost executed as a stowaway but is rescued when the ship is overtaken by British “mercenaries” (i.e., pirates) commanded by the roguish Lord Edgar Dobbs (Roger Moore).
Dobbs is impressed by Chris’ fighting skills during the skirmish — he kicks a couple of guys, punches another one; real thrilling stuff — so he takes him to Muay Thai Island, a place near Siam where dudes train other dudes in the local martial arts. Now, the thing about Chris is that even though he is a great fighter, he doesn’t like fighting. He doesn’t practice or train. He only fights when he’s forced into it, which for some reason happens everywhere he goes. If you asked him, “Are you a fighter?” his reply would be, “My goodness, no. I am but a humble thief and exploiter of orphans.” This “reluctant but amazing fighter” shtick is a common theme in Van Damme movies. The only thing JCVD loves more than fighting is pretending he doesn’t want to fight.
Anyway, Chris sees two Muay Thai fighters picking on another Muay Thai fighter, and his honor compels him to step in and save the poor schmuck. His secret prowess for fisticuffs thus exposed, Chris has no choice but to let the Muay Thai people train him in their ways and become better at it than they are.
Six months later, Chris is a fast-rising star in Bangkok’s underground Muay Thai fighting circuit. Out of nowhere, his greatest desire now is to compete in a secret tournament in which the top prize is a solid gold dragon. He needs Dobbs’ financial assistance to make the long journey to the Lost City where this tournament is held, and Dobbs and his lumpy sidekick, Smythe (Jack McGee), agree to accompany him to the Lost City so they can steal the golden dragon. They’re all joined by a sassy blond newspaper reporter, Carrie Newton (Janet Gunn), who’s after the scoop of a lifetime (“Men Gather in Lost City to Beat One Another Senseless!”).
I should mention that this tournament is only for people who received personal invitations written on scrolls and hand-delivered by a serious-looking Chinese man during the opening credits of the movie. And there’s only one invitee per country, and for some reason only 16 countries are invited, and one of them is “Africa.” Look, this isn’t exactly the Olympics.
Anyway, the American representative is the heavyweight boxing champion, Maxie Devine (James Remar). He willingly signs his invitation over to Chris once he realizes that Chris is a better fighter than he is, then shows up at the tournament personally to vouch for Chris’ superiority. Maxie was convinced after one fight with Chris, which consisted of receiving one (1) kick to the leg and one (1) punch to the face. “You beat me, with your legs and with your speed,” says Maxie, the heavyweight boxing champion, to the guy who just picked up Muay Thai.
There are three things Jean-Claude Van Damme loves:
2) Pretending he doesn’t want to fight
3) Being told what a good fighter he is
The Lost City is an exotic, fantastical Asian village three days’ journey from civilization in a jungle, full of ancient beauty that will soon be destroyed because the Lost City town elders invited the world’s strongest fighters to have a contest there. Seriously, it’s like a teahouse hosting “Jackass” tryouts. In the tournament, the fighters from around the world wear whatever outfits they’d wear back home — so there’s a Japanese guy in a sumo diaper, a bare-chested Brazilian in flowing capoeira pants, a Spanish guy dressed like a matador, and so on, like the “Mortal Kombat” version of It’s a Small World. I kid you not, the German delegation arrives by blimp and wears those pointy German helmets. This is delightful.
As Chris advances in the tournament, the spunky newspaper reporter draws impressively detailed schematics of the fight choreography. Her character is really only here to give Van Damme someone to kiss at the end of the movie, but she takes good notes.
You might wonder: Will the movie deem it necessary to show us the entire tournament, or will it condense things so we move pretty quickly to the part where Chris wins? The answer is: Oh my, yes. The entire tournament. Not just the parts Chris is involved in, or that affect the plot. You’re going to see the entire thing — scene after scene of a nameless grappler defeating another nameless grappler through his superior skill in the sacred art of punching and kicking. You pay for the fighters and their costumes, you’re gonna use them the whole day.
Meanwhile, comic relief Roger Moore and his sidekick try to steal the golden dragon and get caught, and now if Chris doesn’t win the tournament they’ll be executed. Don’t worry, though: he (spoiler alert) wins. The tournament’s sponsors and all the fighters from many lands acknowledge that Chris DuBois, grease-painted pickpocket from New York, is the best in the world at doing a thing he claims not to enjoy, in a style he hadn’t heard of a year ago. All hail him!