Of all of the action stars of 80s and 90s only Jean Claude van Damme and Sylvester Stallone manage to keep their output interesting. Aside from two terrible Escape Plan movies, Stallone has been popping up in Creed, Rambo, Marvel and DC movies as well as the excellent TV show Tulsa King. While Van Damme’s output is less prolific, the movies he makes are more genuine and interesting than almost anything Bruce Willis has made these past 10 years.
In We Die Young Van Damme plays Daniel, a traumatized veteran who self-medicates on Oxycontin. He lives in Washington DC, in a neighborhood run by MS-13. He works as a mechanic and receives his pills from a 14 year old drug runner named Lucas. Lucas is the actual lead of the movie even though every piece of marketing material focuses on Van Damme.
Lucas is directly related to the ruthless gang leader, much to the annoyance of his number 2. But Lucas knows what the gang life will lead to and is only in it to survive. Unlike some other kids of his age who look up to these thugs and want to be a part of MS-13 as it will supply them with money and status. One of those kids is Lucas’ 10 year old brother who desperately wants to be initiated. But when Lucas finds out there is a way out of the hood through a baseball program for kids he tries to flee with his brother with the gang hot on their trails.
With Lucas and his brother being the center focus of We Die Young and much of the running time dedicated to gang lord Rincon, Van Damme is basically a supporting character in a movie that he headlines. He’s also mute due to shrapnel from a grenade damaging his vocal chords. He doesn’t have a single line of dialogue in the entire movie and occasionally communicates with a text to speech app on his phone.
Daniel becomes an unwilling participant in the goal to flee the city with him quickly finding himself under heavy gunfire. He takes a liking to these two kids and tries to help them as good as he can. This isn’t one man army Van Damme, but a reluctant hero who packs a fight. There are no split of flying kicks in the movie, only a couple of down to earth fights between him and members of MS-13.
We Die Young is a decent movie, but there’s nothing groundbreaking on display here. It reminds me of early urban dramas like Juice, but with a Latin-American flavor to it. Playing a mute, this is probably Van Damme’s easiest role when it comes to memorizing lines. The weary appearance he’s been having for several years now helps to convey the traumatic experiences he tries to leave behind him.
Elijah Rodriguez plays the 14 year old Lucas and delivers a performance that isn’t always convincing. As his younger brother Miguel, Nicholas Sean Johnny is relegated to playing a bratty kid in the first act and a terrified one in the other two acts. He does a decent job and shows promise. Only time will tell if this movie will end up in a successful actor feature as his first role.
The best actor here is David Castañeda as Rincon. He injects the gang leader with several layers and is aided by having the movie take place on the wedding day of his sister. This gives him the possibility to switch between ruthless gang leader and caring family man all while never leaving the house.
With the majority of the cast playing gang members, the movie is full of actors who have the most ugly facial tattoos I have ever seen. These guys look nothing like their IMDB profile photos. This is something usually reserved for horror movie actors like Robert Englund.
While I liked We Die Young the marketing lies to you. The poster merely features Van Damme and a secondary gang member. Both have smaller roles in the movie. Actual stars Elijah Rodriguez and Nicholas Sean Johnny are nowhere to be found. A missed opportunity as a collage of all the main characters, including David Castañeda, would do everybody more justice, both the actors and the audience.