Review by James Lindorf
Since high kicking his way into Hollywood in 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme has turned himself into an action icon. He is back with his best performance in years in Writer/Director Lior Geller’s We Die Young. Rincon is the ruthless leader of the Washington D.C. chapter of MS-13, and he happens to have a soft spot for a young drug runner, Lucas. When the gang recruits his ten-year-old brother Miguel, Lucas is desperate to keep him safe. If they want to escape the city, they will need the help of Daniel (Van Damme), a veteran suffering from PTSD and uses the drugs Lucas provides to self-medicate. We Die Young also stars Elijah Rodriguez (Sicario: Day of the Soldado), Joana Metrass (Once Upon a Time), and David Castañeda (Sicario: Day of the Soldado). We Die Young arrives in select theaters and everywhere On Demand March 1st from Lionsgate.
We Die Young is based on the award-winning short film Roads, which was also written and directed by Geller. He traded the streets of Lod, Israel for Washington D.C. and the world of MS-13, a Central American gang that started in L.A. Geller embeds us in that world letting us learn about its members and its customers. To some members, the gang is a way of life to others; it is merely a means of survival, a way to put food on the table. Their world is governed by a select few, and they control the people with violence and religion. It is an impressively subtle way to blend politics in with essentially a 92-minute action movie. Erez Koskas filed the movie with Latin American Hip-hop and ballads to add to the immersive nature.
To complement the strong story, Geller was able to get robust performances from everyone involved. David Castañeda as Rincon is the best in the film. Rincon is a loving brother, a vicious leader, a self-proclaimed father figure and when his world starts to unravel, he gets to run the gamut of emotions. Van Damme says approximately five words even though he probably has the second most screen time behind Lucas. Daniel suffered an injury while on tour in Afghanistan, and it has limited his ability to speak. This forces Van Damme to be a solely physical actor, and sometimes his facial expressions let him down, but overall this may be his best performance as an actor where he isn’t playing a version of himself (JVCD).
The largest detraction from the film is the cinematography by Ivan Vatsov. On his own or with guidance from Geller the decision was made never to have a static shock. The camera must be moving 100% of the time, no matter how simple the shot is. If you were watching this movie on a boat and sit just right, the waves might make it seem like the picture is holding still. Not waves or anything else can help the action scenes though. They took what were well-choreographed scenes and made them hard to watch with the amount of shaky cam and quick cutting involved. The other detraction comes from an out of left field rape scene and an unnecessary love story element. While her part in the plot wasn’t needed Joana Metrass as Anna is a welcome reprieve from the dower, angry and aggressive characters that dominate the film.
A tweak here and there would have turned We Die Young from a good film into a great one. While it may not have gotten a much wider theatrical release, it would have been the type of movie you watch and make a point to tell your friends about. As is, it’s a fun 90 minutes that can make you appreciate Van Damme a little more even if there isn’t a single high kick or split.