The Last Mercenary stars Jean-Claude Van Damme in an action comedy

The Last Mercenary. MA. 110 minutes. Three stars

Jean-Claude Van Damme was once stratospherically hot as a cinema superstar. He totally saved time in Time Cop, he literally was double trouble in Double Trouble. The filmmakers who used him knew his limitations, which was his acting, and knew the areas in which he shone, which was with pure charisma and in gymnastic martial arts, and they didn't try to stray too far from these areas.

As he aged and as audiences moved on, he chose his occasional film role wisely. In the film JCVD in 2008 and in the TV series Jean-Claude Van Johnson in 2012 he played cynical or hilariously raw versions of himself. He was never noted as being a strong actor, but he allowed himself to become a meta-figure, aware of the joke and breaking the fourth wall.

As his one-time box office rivals Stallone and Schwarzenegger also aged, and built film roles that knowingly marketed their former glory and made their declining physicality part of the gag, they included Jean-Claude in some of their films, particularly the Expendables film series.

This latest film, launching on Netflix, tries to capture this self-awareness and self-referential comedy.

Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a secret agent gone rogue who resurfaces in Paris when his son finds himself in trouble. Picture: Netflix

Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a secret agent gone rogue who resurfaces in Paris when his son finds himself in trouble. Picture: Netflix

It is a Gallic slapstick action flick that has that French comic-book sensibility about it, and with JCVD pulling out many of his signature moves.

Jean-Claude plays Richard Brumere, or The Mist, a secret agent gone rogue whose nickname was earned from his ability to disappear. He has been off the books and untraceable for 25 years, but reappears in Paris when his son finds himself in trouble.

The son is Archibald (Samir Decazza), who has never met his real father and has been brought up in the projects of Paris by Fernand Bouchard (Michel Cremades). Archibald had no idea that building maintenance man Fernand was actually an undercover government minder, or that there was a secret immunity arrangement protecting Archie that was set up in his childhood by his father.

But when all-round bad guy and Scarface obsessive Nassim (Simyon Novak) steals Archie's identity and starts using it in his own criminal activity, the secret of Archie's parenthood becomes known to the underworld and a range of shady figures come after him, beginning with killing his father-figure Fernand.

Stepping back on the scene to protect his son, The Mist draws on some old compatriots including former work partner Marguerite (Miou-Miou). Richard/The Mist also draws on some of Archie's friends from his neighbourhood, including the sassy and street-smart Dalila (Assa Sylla). Eventually, though, Richard must reveal the truth about himself and his son's past so that Archie can play a role in his own safety.

Writer and director David Charhon does seem to revere his star, and sets the characters up for a sequel if the Netflix accountants deem one necessary.

The film is a Ukrainian-French production and Netflix stepped in at some point. What it has are high production values, great lighting and a strong and familiar soundtrack, all of which are way more than the film itself deserves. The strength of the work behind the camera just underscores how weak the scripting is and how much of the comedy just misses its mark. The English-language voiceovers don't help much, stripping away much nuance.

JCVD may be self-aware, but he's not a natural comedian. I will note that having acted in English for 40 years, he is now acting in another tongue not his own. He has obviously lived quite the life, because that face of his is rich with the evidence of years of excess. He should be applauded for not having had it all pulled into a cosmetically corrected Joker mask like many of his contemporaries. That bod is still fully legit, though, and he can still perform high kicks and death-drop splits with the agility of a RuPaul's Drag Race contestant.

He employs a series of "disguises" throughout that provide genuine laughs, particularly a sequence with JCVD in drag played completely straight-faced.

Arthouse audiences will delight in seeing French indie actress Miou-Miou as the spy-sidekick, played with the kind of knowing smirk of Helen Mirren's recent Fast and Furious franchise work.

The MA rating is only an estimate based on the amount of violence in the film. As this film plays exclusively on Netflix, it did not require formal Australian classification. That would be quite a "light" MA: the violence is fairly comic-book implausible and low-stakes.

This story The Muscles from Brussels is back first appeared on The Canberra Times.