Jean-Claude Van Damme is a U.S. Border Patrol Agent with a personal vendetta who goes up against American mercenaries working for a South American drug cartel in THE SHEPHERD. Stylish action direction from Isaac Florentine (UNDISPUTED 2), wicked screen fighting moves from co-star Scott Adkins as Van Damme’s main fighting adversary and a decent $12 million budget, slightly nudge this flick above average direct-to-video action standards.
What should attract martial arts enthusiasts is the match up between Van Damme and Adkins. Van Damme needs no introduction and Adkins has been on the rise while displaying some fantastic fighting skills, most notably in Florentine’s previous film, UNDISPUTED 2. The two only tangle once near the end of the film yet each actor gets to show off their respective skills in a lead up to the main confrontation, which turns out to be satisfyingly brutal.
Van Damme is looking great. His craggily face is full of character and he continues to age into a credible old warhorse of an action star capable of projecting a real sense of lethality and power in his moves. Adkins is in his prime and performing a similar kind of dynamic, show-stopping kicking that once made Van Damme famous. The film plays on this contrast in their battle by giving Adkins’ character an early advantage during an initial weapons exchange.
Aside from these two stars and how their moves are displayed, THE SHEPHERD is a disappointment. While resting on tired plot conventions and lame dialogue, the script fumbles repeatedly with oddball sequences that do not make sense. To make it worse, the film is poorly edited in places.
A big problem with this film is that it tries to take itself seriously with bits of character study and references to hot topics like U.S. immigration and the Iraq War but so much of the execution is completely boneheaded.
As with IN HELL, Van Damme’s character relies heavily on bitter memories that drive his actions as we’re forced to witness in a series of quick flashbacks. It’s a cliched visual device that ought to be outlawed but at least the end result is that Van Damme has a bit more depth in his role than is often the case for a lower budget film. He’s well matched with Scottish actress Natalie J. Robb, who plays his superior officer. With a sultry voice and a commanding presence, she delivers the best acting of anyone in the cast, which isn’t saying too much considering how poor the rest of the supporting cast is. As Van Damme’s partner, Gary McDonald looks and acts extremely uncomfortable in his role while Stephen Lord nails down the generic, exposition-spouting bad guy role perfectly.
There is a reoccurring theme with suicide bombs that is meant to be a clever plot device but fails miserably because it’s forced. In relation, I don’t like seeing stereotypical “terrorist” depictions of Iraqis or Afghans, even if well intentioned. It’s demeaning to the misery those folks continue to endure, reinforces propaganda designed to perpetuate war and only adds insult to injury.
The film’s biggest action scene involving a border-busting bus with submachine gun mounts built in is well executed but makes absolutely no sense. So this drug cartel gets the brilliant idea to have mercenaries rig a missionary bus carrying drugs into the U.S. with gun mounts so that if they get caught at the border they can shoot their way through. Where they heck are they supposed to go with a charter bus full of nuns, priests, guns, and blow after shooting up a bunch of border patrol agents? They quickly realize their mistake when they approach a police road block and turn around. Meanwhile, real drug traffickers continue to use far more subtle methods to successfully deliver hundreds of thousands of kilos of illegal drugs into the U.S. every year.
Another joke is the border fence that illegal immigrants are shown sneaking through in an earlier scene, one of whom is strapped with explosives. What border fence? There’s a reason why the U.S. has been having a national debate about the installation of a border fence. People can simply walk across the vast majority of the border between the U.S. and Mexico with nothing to stop them but desert. The film briefly tries to sympathize with the plight of immigrants but the effort feels like an afterthought.
Many of the action scenes are poorly integrated with the plot and seem to stall it rather than push the story forward. This includes a number of small action sequences but most notably a prison match while Van Damme is briefly incarcerated in a Mexican jail. It worked in UNDISPUTED 2 because that was the main point of the movie but here it’s just goofy. I guess if you’re ever thrown into a Mexican prison, don’t be surprised if within a few minutes you find yourself a death match against the reigning prison champion.
On a more positive note, the budget seems well spent. A decent effort is made to turn a Bulgarian locale into a Texas border town. The bus scene features a large number of vehicles, some of which get trashed. This must have cost quite a bit to put together and it’s generally well shot.
Mark Sayfrit’s score is above average and features a memorable theme song with an appropriate Southwestern vibe. He’s composed scores for two other Van Damme flicks, SECOND IN COMMAND and UNTIL DEATH, and this is the first time I have taken notice.
THE SHEPHERD: BORDER PATROL shows that Isaac Florentine is still a potent action filmmaker and he’s able to draw forth an able acting and physical performance from Jean-Claude Van Damme. The film still suffers in most other areas that may or may not have been out of his control, particularly by striking an uncomfortable balance between gritty realism and exaggerated action fluff.