Steven Spielberg won't be running for cover, but Jean-Claude Van Damme's directing debut isn't as embarrassing as might have been anticipated. (This is particularly surprising since the film was not screened for local critics before it opened on Friday.)

In fact, compared to, say, Steven Seagal's behind-the-camera debut with "On Deadly Ground," "The Quest" isn't half bad.

On the other hand, unless bone-crunching violence is your bag, you can bag this one. It's all about fights, fights, fights — and more fights.

The story is as old as kung fu kick-'em-ups, as a mysterious Tibetan cult in 1925 sends invitations around the world to the champion fighters of a variety of countries. They are invited to do battle with their own cultural styles, one-on-one, until there's only one man standing. And he will win a huge golden dragon.

Meanwhile, Christopher Dubois (Van Damme), a petty thief in New York City who leads a band of peewee pickpockets (shades of "Oliver Twist"!) is on the run from police and mobsters when he accidentally falls into a freighter that is about to leave port.

As it happens, the freighter is actually a front for gun smugglers, and they force Dubois to perform slave labor until they reach their Asian destination. Then, as they are about to kill him, the ship is attacked by a band of pirates, led by Lord Dobbs (Roger Moore, who is quite amusing as a pseudo-suave con artist).

Dobbs cheerfully describes himself as "the last of the buccaneers," then sells the naive Dubois to an island kickboxing trainer. Six months later, Dobbs has linked up with an American journalist (Janet Gunn) and Dubois is fighting in tournaments for his owner when they meet again.

Dubois talks Dobbs into buying him so they can enter the Tibetan tournament, dangling the golden dragon as motivation, and they are soon off on further adventures.

The bulk of the film, however, is taken up with the Tibetan tournament battles, as various fighters from around the world are gradually eliminated until only Dubois and a Mongolian monster are left.

You don't have to be an intellectual giant to figure out what happens next.

Van Damme directs some sequences with surprising flair, particularly the period street scenes in New York and a variety of exotic locations. The fights provide the hokiest moments, with loud sound effects, slow-motion face-kicking and amplified grunts and groans.

A little of this goes a long way, and unless you're a die-hard kickboxing buff, you may get a bit bored before it's over, as I did.

The press kit says "The Quest," for which Van Damme wrote the original story, was inspired by the "Tin Tin" comics he read while growing up in Belgium. I'm not familiar with those, but it seems clear that he was equally inspired by Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon" and his own early streetfighter/kickboxer flicks.

And when you think about it, Van Damme probably had to direct "The Quest."

Who else would have the nerve to have the martial arts star appear in caked-on old-age makeup (in the corny wraparound sequence), dress up as a clown on stilts or ride an elephant?

"The Quest" is rated PG-13 for considerable, though largely bloodless, violence. There are also a few scattered profanities.