There are few sure things in life, but when you plunk down money for a movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, you should be reasonably certain you're going to spend the next 90 minutes watching the doe-eyed Muscles From Brussels inflict severe bodily harm upon his fellow humans. The geniuses behind Nowhere to Run, however, had a different concept. The new Van Damme picture contains perhaps 15 minutes of action, most of it cut-rate gunplay-and-fistfight stuff. (The climax is especially disappointing: Instead of impaling the villain or shoving his head into a metal compressor, Van Damme just shoots him with a pistol.) No, what we have here is the gauzy, ''compassionate,'' extremely slow-moving story of an escaped convict (Van Damme) who befriends a widow (Rosanna Arquette) and her two lovable kids and saves them from the evil contractor who wants to build a golf course on their land. Take your time clearing off the mantle for that Oscar, Jean-Claude.
This, of course, is supposed to be the movie in which ''Van Damme Acts!'' in other words, markets himself to a wider audience, the way Steven Seagal did in Under Siege. The makers of Under Siege broadened Seagal's appeal by surrounding him with charismatic villains and mainstream production values in other words, building a better action mousetrap. The producers of Nowhere to Run simply toss out the mousetrap. They make the dismal mistake of turning Van Damme into a softy, a sensitive lunk who puts up his dukes only because he wants to help his new family. The former kickboxer would do well to remember that the most heartfelt performance he was put on this earth to give revolves around the tender sound of snapping limbs. D