For anyone hoping that Jean-Claude Van Damme’s self-reflexive turn in Mabrouk El Mechri’s postmodern JCVD heralded a new career direction for “The Muscles from Brussels,” Assassination Games puts those dreams firmly to rest. A direct-to-video-quality actioner distinguished primarily by its star’s blatantly deteriorated martial-arts prowess, Ernie Barbarash’s third-rate killer thriller concerns the absurdly named Brazil (Van Damme), a hitman introduced surreptitiously slicing the neck of a crime boss at a wedding. Brazil is a laughable cliché, a cold, emotionless assassin dressed in dark shirts, overcoats, and a beret who, when not methodically carrying out contracts, lives in a secret ultra-chic Romanian apartment filled with modern art, a collection of violins (which he plays), and stylishly minimalist décor. His is a dreadfully familiar solitary life, and one that’s predictably interrupted by two been-here, done-that developments: a new abusive pimp neighbor (Attila Árpa) whose bruised and battered whore October (Marija Karan) takes a fancy to him, and a job to kill crime boss Polo (Ivan Kaye) that puts him into direct conflict with another assassin, Flint (a personality-free Scott Adkins), who seeks revenge against Polo for sadistically raping and beating his wife into a coma years earlier.
Polo’s release is a ploy by sleazy Interpol agents to get Flint to emerge from hiding, since they want to off him before he exposes their corruption, adding a further layer of cat-and-mouse complication to an already threadbare story. Brazil and Flint get in each other’s way before teaming up to take out Polo, but far more than the dismally perfunctory plotting, it’s the utter dearth of interesting action that’s most depressing about Assassination Games. Dousing everything in sickly sepia tones, Barbarash stages his centerpieces with minimal grace and even less cleverness, and despite having leads whose main calling cards are their biceps, the director’s focus is—mind-bogglingly—less on ass-kicking than on cloak-and-dagger intrigue. This is an obviously fatal mistake, though given his star’s performance, there’s reason to believe that such an emphasis was by necessity. Delivering a stoic routine that comes off more like dim lethargy, Van Damme seems physically limited throughout this sluggish saga, with his few bouts of fisticuffs clumsily edited in a way that seems designed to mask his dwindling punch-and-kick abilities. That the finale involves not amazing beat-‘em-up feats but, instead, the canny use of a remote-controlled machine gun merely confirms that, like his ‘90s competitor Steven Segal, Van Damme has now fully transitioned into being a parodic shell of his former cartoon-badass self.