The Number One Movie in America: Maximum Risk

By Sean Collier

January 14, 2020

You can tell by the face that he's serious.

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Some weird movies go to the top of the charts.

The winner’s podium at the weekend box office, rightly coveted though that spot may be, is not exclusively the territory of megahits. For every “Jurassic Park,” there is a low-budget actioner that just happened to be released on a slow weekend. One such low-budget actioner: “Maximum Risk,” a rightly forgotten Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle from 1996.

Action and spectacle were in the air that year; the top three films of ’96 were “Independence Day,” “Twister” and “Mission: Impossible.” (Although I must acknowledge the surprising box-office dominance of “The Birdcage,” which won four consecutive weekends and finished 9th for the year.) Ranking far below those megahits — and lesser-ran but still decidedly profitable action efforts including “The Rock” and “Broken Arrow” — were two JCVD vehicles that both managed to win a weekend then immediately fall into oblivion.

The (slightly) more successful of the two was “The Quest,” Van-Damme’s directorial debut. (Really.) It hung around long enough to earn more than $21 million and did decent business overseas; while not exactly a blockbuster, “The Quest” made a tidy profit.

“Maximum Risk,” on the other hand, was propelled out of multiplexes with staggering speed. It won its opening weekend with $5.6 million, edging out the live-action family drama “Fly Away Home.” It fell to fourth place in its sophomore frame, however; by its fourth weekend, it had sunk to the 15th spot on the chart.

How fast did it fall? Despite winning its opening weekend, it’s not one of the hundred top-grossing films of the year. (It’s 104th, if you’re curious. Three spots ahead of “Bio-Dome,” though!)

So what the hell is this forgotten champion? A re-hash of the more successful JCVD flick “Double Impact,” albeit with an opening twist. In an inaugural chase scene — briefly featuring Van Damme fleeing by commandeering a mobile fruit cart, perhaps the first time in cinema history a fruit cart was used as a conveyance rather than a target — our hero is killed by rogue federal agents.

What? He’s dead in the first reel? Not to worry, action fans! He’s got an identical twin brother, who is a cop. (Or a hitman, maybe. Reportedly, they changed the lead’s profession in the middle of filming.) The new JCVD — Alain — heads to Manhattan to put together the circumstances of his brother’s life and death, a process which will lead to the Russian mafia, a love interest (Natasha Henstridge) and, among other set pieces, a chainsaw fight inside a meat locker.

There’s plenty of spectacle in “Maximum Risk,” including more chase sequences than you can shake a Van Damme — or two — at, as well as an extended fight sequence inside a sauna. (Could “Eastern Promises” be influenced by “Maximum Risk,” perhaps? No, but it’s fun to assume.) There’s also a lot of nonsense, a convoluted plot and very little in the way of intrigue. Expect to nod off while watching — and be woken a few minutes later by explosions — several times.


It’s also not a great example of Van Damme’s appeal; his performance is somewhat muted. Perhaps he needed to distinguish between the characters and inexplicably decided to go low-key with the one who got all the screen time. While he was an iconic action hero of the ’80s and early ’90s, his star was beginning to set; he wouldn’t appear in another number one movie until “The Expendables 2.”

Could JCVD have stayed on top if “Maximum Risk” had been better? Perhaps not — Hollywood was changing — but it’s hard to say. We can be confident, however, that one decision doomed this film more than any other.

An uncredited rewrite of “Maximum Risk” was the work of a young Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the script executioners responsible for alleged comedies such as “Epic Movie,” “Date Movie” and “Meet the Spartans.”

Those two have plenty of heat already, but ... you know what, let’s go ahead and blame them for Jean-Claude Van Damme’s downswing, too.

“Maximum Risk” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since the late 1970s. Please listen and subscribe!

Next time: I saw this in a movie about a bus that had to speed around the city, keeping its speed over fifty, and if its speed dropped, it would explode! I think it was called “The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down.”



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