What the Hell Happened to Jean-Claude Van Damme?

jean claude van damme

Jean-Claude Van Damme

In the late 80s and early 90s, Jean-Claude Van Damme was part of a wave of martial artists turned movie stars.  Movies like Van Damme’s break-out role, Bloodsport, were cheap, easy to make and usually provided a great return on investment.  Van Damme in particular seemed poised to break out of low budget movies into legitimate movie stardom.  But instead, the action movie craze subsided and Van Damme was cast aside along with the other action heroes of the time.

What the hell happened?

van damme competition

Jean-Claude Van Damme

Van Damme was born in Belgium.  His full name is Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg.  His father was an accountant.  At the age of 10, he enrolled in a Shotokan karate school.  At the age of 15, Van Damme began a career in competitive martial arts.  At the age of 17, he began competing in full-contact events which were new to Belgium.

van damme ballet

Jean-Claude Van Damme

At the age of 16, Van Damme took up ballet.  Van Damme described ballet as an art form and an intense sport.  “Ballet is an art, but it’s also one of the most difficult sports. If you can survive a ballet workout, you can survive a workout in any other sport.”

van damme mr belgium

Jean-Claude Van Damme

Ever the Renaissance Man, Van Damme also took up body building.  During his body building career, Van Damme was dubbed “Mr. Belgium”.  It’s unclear what exactly that title means.  Although it sounds like an official body building title like Mr. Universe, there is no indication any one else has ever won it.  Some have suggested that the Mr. Belgium moniker was more of an unofficial nickname made up for Van Damme than an actual title from a competition.

van damme kick boxing

Jean-Claude Van Damme

Van Damme competed in full-contact martial arts events from 1977-1982.  During his career, he had a record of 18 victories (all by Knock Out) and 1 defeat.  Only one opponent ever knocked Van Damme down in a match.  Van Damme went on to knock that opponent out in less than a minute.

van damme - monaco forever

Jean-Claude Van Damme – Monaco Forever – 1984

In 1984, Van Damme broke into movies.  His first role was in the movie, Monaco Forever.  Charles Pitt starred as an American jewel thief trying to set up a robbery in Monaco.  Along the way, he encounters several characters including “Gay Karate Man” played by Van Damme:

Next: Breakin’ and Predator


Posted on January 12, 2014, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 101 Comments.

  1. Great article.

    Suggestion: WTHH to Lelee Sobieski, who was once poisoned to be the next Helen Hunt.


  2. ooops, I mean “poised”.


  3. Ummm…wow. I have actually never seen any of JCVD’s movies.
    But I did see the episode of ‘Friends’ he was in!
    I’m pretty sure I haven’t missed anything.
    Fun article, though.


    • That’s pretty impressive. I saw Timecop and Street Fighter as an occupational requirement. Timecop was watchable. I was a guest sleeping on someone’s couch when they plopped The Quest into the ol’ VCR. That put me right to sleep. That’s it for me.

      Usually when I write these articles, my opinion of the subject changes. I went in knowing about Van Damme’s cocaine habit. I didn’t realize he was such a cad romantically speaking. But I figured there would be bad behavior. Demanding $20 million dollars when most of his movies grossed about $30 mil in the US? Absurd! But I kind of respect that he can laugh about it now. He just seems so driven and eager to please. I don’t know. For some reason, my opinion of JCVD improved.


      • I was surprised at how few of Van Damme’s films I’d seen; Universal Soldier (where his accent was explained away by him being a cajun!), Sudden Death (at least I think I saw it, but these diehards all blend into each other) – and No Retreat, No Surrender, which was one of the greatest films me or my mates had ever seen in our (young) lives! Bruce Lee’s ghost! Bruce Lee’s wooden trouser press as training equipment! How COOL was that!? I suspect that fond memories would probably not be enough to carry a re-watch.

        Continuing down the memory lane: WHHT Michael Dudikoff?

        Thanks, as always, for a great series! And I’m still keen to see Gary Sinise’s career explained


        • As I was writing the article, my wife asked if it was going to post later that day. I generally write WTHH articles in chronological order (although sometimes I jump around a bit). I was up through 1993 at the time. I told her, “I don’t know. I’ve got 20 years left to go and I haven’t seen a single one of these movies yet.”

          When I started WTHH, I had a whole lot of rules. One of them was that I would only write about actors I was a fan of. The idea is that it would keep the tone affectionate and keep the snark in check. Little by little those rules fell aside. That was one of the last rules I dropped. Specifically, I dropped it when I wrote about Steven Seagal. Van Damme is probably the only other actor I have covered that I was honestly never a fan of to any degree. I like the action genre just fine, but those cheap action movies just never appealed to me.

          With Seagal, I started writing the article with very little respect. The minimum amount you can have for a guy who has been so successful. And yet, that minimum amount of respect drained away.

          With Van Damme, I started in the same place of relative neutrality. But I couldn’t help admiring the guy at least a little bit. There’s a lot there to make fun of. And plenty of reasons not to like the guy. But his self-awareness makes him more palatable to me.

          Having said that, I’m not watching either one of their movies.

          If I don’t get to Sinese this year, I will consider it a great failure on my part. I haven’t decided on the next article yet. But I want it to be an actress.


      • Read This: There’s a reason the Street Fighter movie was so awful:

        By Eric Lindvall
        Mar 11, 2014 2:30 PM

        1994’s Street Fighter: The Movie is a glorious disaster. Other than character names, it retains almost none of the source material: no hurricane kicks, hadoukens, and, perhaps most damningly, none of Guile’s theme. The film is just straight-up bad, and now, thanks to Chris Plante over at Polygon, you can get an idea why.

        Plante’s piece details the trials of first-time (and only-time) feature-film director Stephen de Souza as he tried and ultimately failed to make a decent Street Fighter movie. To his credit, de Souza made a valiant attempt, but it’s hard to see anyone coming out on top in his situation. The director had to deal not only with interference from Street Fighter’s development studio, Capcom (which had never produced a movie before), but he also contended with rushed stunt schedules, a cancer-stricken Raul Julia, cast members who became addicted to Bangkok massage parlors, and a Jean-Claude Van Damme who was hooked on cocaine and having sex with Kylie Minogue.

        Even though Street Fighter stands among the worst video game adaptations of all time (and that’s saying something), it’s hard not to have sympathy for the cast and crew who had to endure this Heart Of Darkness-esque production. Who knows what happened with that second one.


        • The Nostalgia Critic’s Real Thoughts On: Street Fighter:

          Of course!


        • 6 True Stories That Explain Why Famously Bad Movies Sucked:

          #1. Street Fighter Was A Perfect Storm Of Cocaine, Hand Jobs, And Terminal Illness

          Street Fighter was enjoying a period of extreme popularity in the early ’90s, thanks to its colorful cast of characters and the fact that virtually every other game of its type at the time was unspeakably shitty. So naturally, when a film adaptation directed by Steven de Souza (the man who wrote Die Hard) was announced, expectations were high. Unfortunately, what we got was an incomprehensible two-hour G.I. Joe commercial that was universally hated.

          The Moment It All Went Wrong:

          DeSouza managed to convince the studio to pare the enormous cast of characters from the video game down to seven. Capcom, the makers of the Street Fighter games, initially agreed, but slowly began putting pressure on the director to include more of their characters, until the cast list ballooned from seven to 15. Casting all these new parts was so rushed that DeSouza cast Kylie Minogue as one of two female leads because he saw her in a magazine, on an airplane, as he was flying to Bangkok to shoot the film. This suggests that DeSouza had boarded his flight with the intention of hiring the first woman who spoke to him until he saw that particular magazine.

          Playing the villainous M. Bison was legendary actor Raul Julia, which was a huge get that helped legitimize the film. The only problem was that Julia was dying of cancer and showed up to set looking visibly depleted, as if he had just returned from a visit to the future wherein he watched the finished version of Street Fighter. De Souza had to completely flip the filming schedule to allow Julia to regain weight from a recent surgery, which meant that they had zero time for any kind of rehearsal, resulting in fight sequences that look about as exciting as two brothers playing Street Fighter in their backyard.

          Meanwhile, the star of the movie, Jean-Claude Van Damme, was recently divorced, and had elected to cope with this stress by staying as coked out of his mind as humanly possible. Van Damme constantly ruined takes because his brain was floating on a cloud of white powder somewhere near Jupiter, and when he wasn’t doing that, he wouldn’t show up on set at all, forcing DeSouza to pull together whatever actors weren’t passed out on a beach somewhere to “make up some s*** on the spot,” improvising a bunch of fight scenes to cover lost time. Of course, off-the-cuff improvisation doesn’t work quite as well in a martial arts film with minimal dialogue, so these thinly-choreographed battle sequences were somewhat less than thrilling.

          Still other members of the cast were disappearing into Thai massage parlors, where they discovered they could purchase a “finishing move” for about ten dollars. According to one actor, “We were like cavemen. We were like Vikings. We went there and conquered.” This is another way of saying that Street Fighter: The Movie was the video diary of a cocaine-and-hand-job vacation to Thailand that was inexplicably sold to disappointed children.


        • What I get is out of that article is being bummed about Raul Julia being gone too soon; cancer sucks. I thought he was a fabulous actor. Good guy, bad guy, enigmatic guy, weird guy…he could bring it.
          Now the “Street Fight” deal wasn’t really my jam anyway, so I had no expectations (that includes the arcade game, which I wasn’t going to stand in line for, or the home port, back in the day when I played only sports video games. To this day, I’m lousy at fighting games, and have only done well on “Killer Instinct” for the SEGA Genesis).


        • 10 Greatest Villains From Otherwise Disappointing Movies:

          M. Bison – Street Fighter

          The Disappointing Movie: Though this video game adaptation offered action aplenty, it was so prolific that there was barely any time for story, and when there were any development, they were often campy and trite.

          The Great Villain: In what would be Raul Julia’s final film role, it’s a good thing that he went out with a bang. Starring as the vaguely Eurasian General M. Bison in the overstuffed martial arts fest, Julia is literally the sole redeeming feature of this video game adaptation.

          His boring plan of ransoming some aid workers becomes immediately overshadowed by Julia’s showy performance and his disdain for the heroes around him. Whereas Bison’s plans were ridiculous, his character was oh so enjoyable.

          Put simply, this movie was terrible. The plot was nonsensical and the entire thing was riddled with ridiculous dialogue, and yet, Julia’s M. Bison seemed to be the only character to recognize just how ridiculous the world around them was. Doing the best he could with the material, Julia treated it with respect and gave us a perfect amount of camp. If the rest of the cast had matched his performance, Street Fighter might have left a much different cinematic legacy.


        • Street Fighter 1994 Commentary (Podcast Special) with Oliver Harper, Duncan Casey and Richard Jackson.


    • Your out of your mind van dam movies are awsome lionheart bloodsport is a awesome kickboxer double impact


  4. Van Damme has certainly had a much more successful and longr (as a threatrical star) career than Seagal.

    Still, Seagal has to be given some grudging respect for trying some new stuff with some of his more “environmental” movies and less actiony films.

    But yeah, Van Damme would likely beat Seagal in a fight today or at their prime even.


    • Van Damme would have mopped the floor with Seagal. Those two had a long running rivalry. They both came up about the same time. And Seagal talked a lot of shit about Van Damme. I’m not an action guy, but if someone could convince Seagal to put his ego aside and fight Van Damme in an Expendables movie, I’d go see that.

      I actually came away from this article really hoping someone would give Van Damme another shot at a big movie. I think he still has fuel in the tank.


  5. Maybe the fuel in those Volvo truck´s tanks will help him…


    • You may be on to something there.

      I have to admit, part of my newfound respect for Van Damme comes from that stunt. Say what you want about him, but he’s the real deal. You ain’t gonna see Seagal out there on those trucks. Or any other action star for that matter.


  6. the final fight in Expendables 2 was the bomb. nice article I love Van Damme I grew up on his movies. somebody mentioned Michael Dudikoff that guy was never anything close to a bankable star.he’s worked on nothing but be movies throughout his career


    • At one point, Seagal, Van Damme and Dudikiff were all more or less on even footing. They all starred in B movies. None of them really broke out of that completely. Seagal probably came the closest. Van Damme imploded almost immediately. Dudikoff never came close.


  7. WTHH to Michael Paré 🙂


    • Believe it or not, he has been suggested before. And I have considered him. I wrote about him a bit in the Rick Moranis article I think.

      Eventually, I will get around to everybody or die trying.


  8. @I wrote about him a bit in the Rick Moranis article I think – I actually tried to find it and I think you must have meant Tom Berenger. Anyway, it probably wasn’t at all clear but I would actually really enjoy WTHH to Dudikoff and Pare. I have a thing for 80s action guys.

    As for Van Damme: I want to make sure everybody checks out this scene:

    Really awesome stuff. I honestly think it might be the best acting I’ve seen from the Jean Claude (saw JCVD and didn’t like it much). Overall he’s kind of a lousy actor. But I buy him as a villain. Maybe it’s because his face hasn’t aged very well – he’s looking a bit haggard. Stallone isn’t half bad either – it’s a really intense scene.


  9. “However, I think you have to give the guy some credit. He owns his mistakes. Sometimes very publicly. And you can tell the guy is still busting his ass to be a star. He’s got heart and a sense of humor. As that Volvo video shows, JCVD is still kind of relevant.”

    I’ve never been a fan of JCVD (and definitely not his movies), but, recently, I’ve come to respect him and, consequently, 100% agree with that last paragraph of your summation. I feel that he absolutely deserves some credit. A lot, actually because you’re right — he’s recognized, admitted and tried to make up for all of his past indiscretions, whatever they may have been. He’s seemingly recovered from his addictions (egotism included), he’s put aside his conceit, and appears to have really embraced who he is, flaws and all, and, for a man who had the amount of fame, exposure and sense of self importance as JCVD did, it’s admirable.

    And, despite my not being a fan of his work, it’s clear that in the films he’s done in the past several years, he’s most definitely working his butt off, trying REALLY hard and doing his absolute best. What I like most about him, though, I think, is that, unlike some of his fellow ex-action stars (I’m looking at you Steven Seagal and Dolph), he’s not delusional about his abilities or where they can take him. (Dolph, by his own account, moved away from his kids back to LA to “really focus on [his] career” and give acting a shot to see if he can “make it” . I can’t find the article, but I think it was a publication from the UK.)

    Who knew that JCVD would turn out to be so affable, down-to-Earth, good-humored, and self aware? (And sensitive! In the reality show you mentioned, he’s physically affectionate with EVERYONE, a die-hard animal lover, and cries at the drop of a hat.)

    And that Volvo commercial is INSANE. I can’t imagine ANYONE coming away from watching that without at least an OUNCE of respect for him. That was actually my source of excitement about and impetus for reading this particular entry in WTTHT. When I first saw the commercial, I had to pick my jaw up from the floor and watch it two more times. I’m a SUCKER for his kickboxing moves; his movements have such grace and are so controlled, it almost seems like he’s DANCING, and it’s just so mesmerizing to watch. I’d LOVE to see him do another action movie, all his own, complete with all his old moves. The wisdom and humility he’s gained over the years, combined with his exceptional athletic skills (what he’s capable of is still very impressive) has amazing potential to be pretty great. He just needs a good director and decent script, which seems to have always been his biggest cinematic problem.

    PS. That Seagal interview on Arsenio? What a JACKASS.

    PPS “Sorry, that wasn’t the right clip. But Toto rules.” LOL Goodness knows I’ll never pass up an opportunity to listen to some good music. 🙂


    • If nothing else, you have to admire the guy’s work ethic. He’s 10 years older than me and he’s more flexible than I have ever been. I haven’t watched his movies, but I get the sense the guy is 100% committed to his projects whether it’s a viral video, a big screen action movie or a direct-to-video sequel.

      He’s still got his flaws. I mean, the guy sounds like an ass when he talks about his affair with Kylie Minogue. He makes it sound like he would have been an idiot not to cheat on his wife. And I get the impression ego is still something he struggles with.

      But everyone has their flaws. I give Van Damme credit for owning them. My sense is that he is trying to be the best person he can be. And really, what more can anyone do? So, yeah, Van Damme earned my respect even if I still don’t want to watch Kickboxer.

      I gave your comment ups for being the first one to reference the Toto joke. As I was writing the article, I was playing the video. My wife looks at me and asks if I am playing motivational music. I explain that Van Damme made a movie with Roseanna Arquette who inspired the song, blah blah blah. I was clearly very entertained with myself which is typically the case when I write these things.

      So Mindy asks me if my audience is even half as entertained with my jokes as I am. I think about it for a minute and I tell her I doubt it. My criteria for any joke or gag is whether or not it makes me smile a bit. If it does, I go ahead and include it even if I know it’s kind of stupid. I figure if it makes me laugh, it will entertain at least one other person out there.

      The Toto bit still cracks me up. It may become a running gag. Also, Toto does totally rule. I played that song a few times while writing the article. I think I need to go ahead and listen to it again.

      Thanks for reading and for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the article.


      • ” I mean, the guy sounds like an ass when he talks about his affair with Kylie Minogue. He makes it sound like he would have been an idiot not to cheat on his wife.”

        Yeah- when i first heard him talk about it- I was like “OK- you have a hot pop-star co-star- go for it!”

        Only later did I realize he was married and his marriage history looked pretty – er- complicated.


  10. Oh, there’s no doubt about it — JCVD is a World. Class Idiot. And I say that with the assuredness (and shame 🙂 ) of someone who just watched ALL eight episodes of “Behind Closed Doors”. Back to back to back. I kid ye not. My curiosity with it happened to coincide with a wicked case of insomnia, unfortunately. Needless to say, I learned more about JCVD and his family than I ever wanted to know — EVER — but I just couldn’t stop watching. LOL (Though, that seems to be a theme here — I’ve read, written, and thought about JCVD more than I ever have in my whole entire life in the past two days. I’m hoping this will stop soon. 🙂 )

    So, he’s definitely a moron, and it’s WELL documented, yes. However, he’s been diagnosed as bipolar, and I think that explains away most of his shenanigans. He’s kind of a train wreck, emotionally, and pretty insecure, which I think is where his perceived egotism stems from. (Vascillating between the highs and lows doesn’t lend itself to a very balanced, consistent emotional state, and he seems to struggle with that A LOT, even with medication.) I don’t think his ego is any bigger than that of the average guy, BUT, I do think his desire to prove himself and show the world that he still has something to offer rears it’s head a fair amount. I think it drives him more than anything sometimes. But, despite him being a douchebag, he’s not an A**HOLE, and, by that, I mean he seems to be very well-meaning and to have just the best intentions. He’s not malicious or mean and genuinely seems to want to make the world a better place, as cheesy as that may sound. And, as you said, he really does seem like he’s trying to be the best person he can be.

    The one thing JCVD had going for him, which really set him apart, was his extreme athleticism. I mean, he was an honest to goodness, hardcore athlete. Other action stars were in shape, quite fit and had muscles to spare, but JCVD was the real deal. (I know Arnie, in his way, was an athlete when he first broke on the scene, but, honestly, I put bodybuilders in a different class as their competitions are not physically exerting.) Even now, as someone over half a century old, his physical abilities are nothing short of impressive and fantastic and still so amazing to see, perhaps even more so considering his age. He has such precision and grace; every move he executes is just SO PRETTY, and it seems to be a trait exclusive to him. I don’t recall ever seeing a martial artist display such finesse while performing. . . It must be all that ballet. 🙂 It seems like such a shame to not keep showcasing that. I’m aware of some physiological issues he’s suffered as he’s aged, but he can still perform a lot of moves without danger of harming himself.

    Of all the movies Hollywood is remaking, they should take a look at JCVD’s films. While they certainly weren’t masterpieces, I think with a little revamping or, as they say in the biz “reimagining”, some of them could really be quite good/entertaining. I know that there has been chatter of one or two getting that treatment, I don’t believe there has been anything definitve on it, though.

    And, I have to admit, LeBeau, I’m partial to your humor here on the blog. 🙂 And, so far, your taste in music. 😉


  11. You might say that because of his big legs and karate he can do the splits no problem 😉


  12. Thanks for this. Been looking forward to the JCVD article.

    Bring on Stallone!


  13. This article kind of makes me like Jean-Claude Van Damme. I never got into many of his films except for “Double Impact” (I was 16 when i viewed it from a friend who was big into Van Damme; I still like it), but I do have to say, if those type of films are your thing, then you get your money’s worth with Van Damme. Also, I agree that he comes across as being self-aware, funny, and having heart/desire. Definitely not a guy just along for life’s ride; I like that.


    • Yeah. I mean, he’s got his flaws. I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to make a movie with him in the 90s. But humbled Van Damme (who still has a very healthy ego) seems like a pretty cool guy. Not someone I’d let anywhere near my daughters (or my wife or even my mom for that matter). But in spite of the fact I have never been a fan of his movies, I found myself liking him as I researched the article. He’s like Seagal if Seagal learned a couple life lessons.


    • I’ve never seen any of my comments receive a negative comment before; this calls for a celebration! Jungle Boogie, Jungle Boogie…


  14. 7 Actors Who Tried To Be Directors (And Totally Failed):

    1. Jean-Claude Van Damme

    Jean-Claude Van Damme proved in his 2008 movie JCVD to be more perceptive than most of us probably expected, though that doesn’t mean he’s ever been qualified to direct one of his own movies.

    Nevertheless, he gave it a shot with 1996′s The Quest, a typical martial arts flick which, if Van Damme had paid any attention to his previous movies, he might have actually been able to pull off. Sadly, The Muscles from Brussels’ directorial debut suffers from poor camerawork and, strangely enough, a distinct lack of action.

    There are a few perverse delights, like the opening scenes in which Van Damme is dressed up like a clown, and Roger Moore’s completely inexplicable presence, but on the whole, this is one of the actor’s lesser martial arts vehicles, lacking in energy and even the basic thrill of some fun fight scenes. It scored 14% on Rotten Tomatoes.

    As for his second feature, known under the titles Full Love, Soldiers and The Eagle Path, it screened at Cannes 4 years ago, but has yet to be released due to additional shooting in 2012. Not the best of indications that he’s improved…


  15. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ego (allegedly) almost ruined Manu Bennett’s (Spartacus) career. Read the shocking, behind the scenes story here:


  16. Creator Killer (TV Tropes)

    “A near-consensus pick as the worst movie ever made, Gigli improbably serves as the bookend of [Martin] Brest’s directing career.”
    — Dirk Knemeyer, “The Curious Career of Martin Brest”

    A rather unpredictable phenomenon, this is when one or more works flop badly enough to take down or badly damage the publishers, the reputation of creative talents behind it, or both. Though there are usually many factors needed to cause the death of a publisher or a creator, some high-profile flops are linked (rightfully or not) to the death of the organization working on it. They will Never Live It Down.

    Compare with Genre-Killer and Franchise Killer. Not to be confused with Author Existence Failure (though they can overlap if the work’s performance is so bad that the creator is Driven to Suicide or otherwise dies shortly after), Rage Against the Author or The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You, where the creator can be literally killed by his or her work. See Star-Derailing Role when it happens to the performers. See Old Shame for an old work which a creator turns against later (or refuses to let see the light of day), but which by itself probably won’t destroy their credibility. Contrast Breakthrough Hit (when the work makes the creator a big name) and Career Resurrection and Win Back the Crowd (when the work makes the creator a big name after a Creator Killer).

    *John Woo attempted to reconstruct his reputation tarnished by the divisive reception of Mission Impossible II with Paycheck, starring Ben Affleck. It instead received negative reviews, failed domestically at the box office, and helped Affleck make his chance of winning the Razzie Award for Worst Actor certain (thanks to two other films in which his performances were savagely criticized). After Paycheck failed, Woo declared he would never work in Hollywood again.
    Some has suggested his loss of faith in Hollywood started just a decade before, during post-production of Hard Target. There have been several allegations and accounts (one of them here that Woo was locked out from the editing room by star Jean-Claude Van Damme by order of the Universal executives after both Van Damme and the executives were skeptical toward Woo’s cut of the film, and decided to take things to their own hands. Some have also claimed the same thing happened between star Tom Cruise and Woo during post-production of Mission Impossible II as well.


  17. With JCVD, a fading action star stepped outside himself:

    by Scott Tobias

    Departures looks at films by talents who defied expectations and tried something different. Are these films true anomalies, or not quite the left turns they appear to be?

    In the decade leading up to 2008’s JCVD, Jean-Claude Van Damme, “The Muscles From Brussels,” the martial-arts sensation of Bloodsport and Timecop, made the following movies: Legionnaire, Inferno, The Order, Replicant, Derailed, In Hell, Wake Of Death, The Hard Corps, Second In Command, Until Death, and The Shepherd: Border Patrol. Every single one of them was released straight to DVD in the United States. At the same time, his show-business bête noire, Steven Seagal, having bottomed out at Warner Bros. after the vanity project On Deadly Ground and Fire Down Below, starred in the likes of The Patriot, Exit Wounds, Ticker, The Foreigner, Out For A Kill, Belly Of The Beast, Out Of Reach, Today You Die, Black Dawn, and Mercenary For Justice, among other titles that sound like bullet points from Troy McClure’s résumé. For action stars like Van Damme and Seagal—and Chuck Norris, Van Damme’s Cannon Group predecessor, before them—the work keeps coming even though their careers are effectively over. They just operate in the shadows, taking jobs like the cold-blooded mercenaries they played so often onscreen.

    Among the wittier meta-movie touches in JCVD—which could be called Van Damme’s 8 1/2 with all apologies and a flower basket due to Fellini—Van Damme’s agent calls with the humiliating news that Van Damme lost a part to Seagal because Seagal offered to cut off his ponytail for the role. This is what counts as an event in the straight-to-DVD world: a has-been getting a haircut.

    But let’s stop the comparisons to Seagal right there. Because for all the overlap of these two erstwhile action stars fighting for profile in a diminished marketplace, Van Damme has more charisma and grace, and by far the most interesting career. Though he never had a commercial hit as satisfying as Seagal’s Under Siege—his prime includes Death Warrant, Lionheart, Double Impact, and other generic actioners—Van Damme acted as the bridge between Hong Kong and Hollywood, importing top HK talents like John Woo (Hard Target) and Tsui Hark (Double Team, Knock Off), and proving their stylistic hallmarks could be applied to American action movies. He also, crucially, had a sense of humor about himself, unlike his genre counterparts, who trafficked in toughness and brute force without a whit of humanity, much less humility. In that, Van Damme occasionally resembled a Eurotrash Patrick Swayze, though his projects rarely exploited this softer, funnier, more sensitive side. He too often accommodated movies when they might have better accommodated him.

    This much is clear about JCVD: No other action star of Van Damme’s generation would have made it. To quote John C. Reilly in Boogie Nights, they can be masters of “jujitsu, aikido, and regular karate,” but self-deprecation isn’t a standard part of the repertoire. And perhaps it wasn’t Van Damme’s, either, until the setbacks of his own life and career forced it on him. Onscreen, Van Damme spent a decade in the wilderness, collecting paychecks for supplying generic action movies to undiscriminating couch potatoes. Offscreen, he nursed a near-legendary cocaine habit, married and divorced multiple times (his remarriage to wife no. 4 has held), was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and was even homeless for a time. A cynic might consider the personal disclosures in JCVD to be a shrewd act of career rehabilitation, but the film caught him at a true low moment, and got into the embarrassing particulars.

    French-Tunisian director Mabrouk El Mechri, working from a script he wrote with Frédéric Benudis and Christophe Turpin, pours these biographical details into a scenario that’s half hostage thriller, half Irma Vep-style meta-movie. And though the latter part is more compelling than the former, JCVD never forgets that Van Damme’s image is the focal point. El Mechri opens with the best shot of Van Damme’s career (and really, a legitimate candidate for any list of all-time great opening shots), a single take of the 47-year-old kicking, punching, shooting, and stabbing his way through a gauntlet of attackers, who come after him with guns, knives, grenades, even a flamethrower. The shot is ruined when the cheap set collapses at the end, but the young Chinese director has no sympathy for his exhausted middle-aged star: “Just because he brought John Woo to Hollywood doesn’t mean he can rub my dick with sandpaper.”

    Welcome to the humiliating life of Jean-Claude Van Damme, a former star left with all the hassles of celebrity, but none of the benefits. In fact, the events in JCVD would never have happened if he weren’t so desperate and pathetic. Back in his Brussels hometown, where he’s still revered, Van Damme the movie character—whom I’ll henceforth call JCVD to avoid confusion—scrambles to cover a bounced check to the lawyers working on his hopeless child-custody case. (At trial, the counsel for his ex-wife goes through a stack of DVDs to show how JCVD’s violent movies make him unfit to be a father.) After pausing briefly to snap a photo with two superfans—“I pictured him taller. But he’s short,” they complain afterward—JCVD heads into the post office to collect a wired advance to cover the shortfall. He unwittingly enters the scene of a robbery-in-progress, and the three perpetrators decide that instead of sticking him with the other hostages, they’ll make it look like JCVD is the mastermind responsible. It’s a plausible scenario: After all, he’s a washed-up actor in need of some quick cash.

    El Mechri seems to know that the heist material won’t sustain JCVD on its own, so he keeps looping back in time and showing the same scenes from different angles. And whenever he gets away from the post office, the film has space to reflect on the sad circus of Van Damme’s personal and professional life, and on the pride-swallowing reality of clinging to show business’ bottom rung. JCVD wonders if he can get any part in a studio picture, even working for scale. His agent demurs, and offers to send him a script for some piece of crap he’s forgotten they already made. Then there’s Seagal and his stupid ponytail. And the civilians and taxi driver who expect Brussels’ famous son to stand for photos, or engage them in conversation. Once upon a time, when JCVD was a millionaire and one of the hottest action stars in the world, the tradeoff of privacy for celebrity might have been worth it. Now it’s all hassle.

    The twists and turns inside the post office aren’t as revealing, but El Mechri and his co-writers make one crucial, brilliant decision: The JCVD in the hostage situation is the real Van Damme, not the guy whom audiences expect to disarm the perpetrators with a few swift roundhouse kicks. When JCVD has a gun to his head, he doesn’t step back with an elbow to the gut, or snap the shooting arm in two places; he stands still and does what he’s told. Though there does come a point where he has to take action, El Mechri stages it first as a fantasy of a graceful kick in front of cheering spectators, before doing it again as an uglier struggle for separation.

    But the real coup de grace in JCVD is a six-minute, heavily improvised monologue in which the star, literally elevated from a scene in progress, reflects on the ups and downs that brought him to this perilous place in his life. He talks about his ambivalence over having his dreams of stardom realized. He cops to his drug use, womanizing, and excesses. He frets about the cosmic justice of wanting to come home to Brussels, only to be thrown into this terrible situation. He cries. He gives the closest thing Jean-Claude Van Damme has to a real performance, and it’s mesmerizingly staged and acted.

    JCVD promised the rebirth of Van Damme as an actor, a more human action star. Then, four years later, he turned up in The Expendables 2 like everyone else.


  18. The birth, death and regeneration of the Universal Soldier movies:

    Universal Soldier began in 1992 before suffering from some tawdry sequels. Then John Hyams revived the franchise in spectacular fashion…

    The Universal Soldier films are a strange case of life imitating art. Much like how series protagonist Luc Deveraux is killed in action then resurrected into something post-human, Universal was a pretty standard 90s action film which crashed and burned when it came to sequels, but became something unique and beautiful when it was reanimated for the straight to DVD market.

    It’s a hushed secret among genre fans, but Universal Solder 3 and 4 (or possibly 5 and 6, it’s complicated) are some of the most remarkable action sci-fi films of the 21st century so far. Yes, really. I actually watched the series backwards when I first saw them, after being blown away by Universal Solder Day Of Reckoning and deciding to work my way back, and Roland Emmerich’s perfectly acceptable 1992 blockbuster is actually rather disappointing compared to what was to come.

    1992’s Universal Soldier has started to become somewhat forgotten – it’s fallen out of the canon of classic 80s and 90s action movies, and Dolph Lundgren’s character doesn’t crack jokes about in it The Expendables. The truth is it doesn’t quite have the spark of say, Predator, or Speed, or even Demolition Man. The premise is fun enough. During the Vietnam war, Private Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), discovers his Sergeant (Dolph Lundgren) has gone mad with power and is killing innocent civilians. Deveraux tries to stop him, and both of them are killed in the ensuing fight. Twenty-five years later, the two of them are brought back to life with their memories wiped, as part of a secret government program of making super-soldiers out of deceased GIs. Deveraux then starts to remember his old life, and goes on the run.

    While the characters aren’t cyborgs per se, it’s part of the cycle of robot movies that followed RoboCop and The Terminator – Deveraux’s character arc of reclaiming his humanity is basically the same as Alex Murphy’s. The problem is the film just doesn’t really go anywhere – Deveraux goes on the run with a boilerplate sassy female journalist sidekick (Ally Walker), gets chased for a bit, and then, nothing really. The action is solid enough – lots of early 90s explosions and stuff – but nothing truly memorable.

    The strongest points are actually Van Damme and Lundgren’s performances. Van Damme deadpans surprising well, playing it as an ruthless but naïve warrior. He nails a lot of the fish-out-of-water comedy scenes, like discovering that food tastes nice again, or not realising that he shouldn’t just strip off in public – they’re silly, but Van Damme plays them totally straight and the jokes work. Lundgren is even better, switching from an emotionless drone to regaining his old evil persona half way through the movie, hamming it up as a madman who wears his victims’ ears on a necklace.

    The first Universal Soldier was a success, but not a massive hit or anything. Thinking about it, it was about the highest profile work either of the leads ever did. While a few JCVD film have a similar scale (Timecop, Street Fighter, maybe Hard Target), even in his mid-90s heyday Van Damme’s bread and butter was still bog-standard martial arts flicks like Nowhere To Run and Maximum Risk. Lundgren never really made it past supporting roles in big mainstream films (or the lead in B-level action flicks), and after Ivan Drago it’s his most recognizable role. But the film didn’t set the box office on fire, opening to second to the Tom Hanks-Geena Davis baseball comedy A League Of Their Own, and it probably signaled that neither one of them become iconic stars on the level of Schwarzenegger or Stallone.

    It did better overseas (possibly because of its two European stars), and the original ending was changed to have Deveraux survive, so the possibility of a sequel was not unlikely. However, any potential further adventures of the UniSols were dealt a blow when producers Carolco imploded in 1995, after the failures of both Showgirls and Cutthroat Island.

    Somehow, the Universal Soldier rights ended up with Canadian production company Skyvision Entertainment, who knocked out two made-for-cable movies: 1998’s Universal Soldier II: Brothers In Arms and 1999’s Universal Soldier III: Unfinished Business. There was a surprising number of TV adaptations of classic action films in the mid- to late-90s – Highlander was the most successful, but there were also off-model versions of RoboCop, Total Recall and Timecop littering cable channels at the time – and it looks like the two TV movies were intended as a pilot for a series that never came.

    Despite none of the original cast returning, Brothers In Arms continued directly from the first film. Derveraux was now played by former NFL player Matt Battaglia. It’s the second time he’d followed in the footsteps of Van Damme – he played a fireman who Pheobe dated in a 1997 episode of Friends, following on from JCVD appearing on the show as himself and going on a date with Monica the year before. Backing him up were acting titans Gary Busey and Burt Reynolds. The films are cheap, flat and as uninspired as you would expect from a made-for-cable spin off, but the second one does imply that Bill Clinton is a secret UniSol.

    The same year that Unfinished Business came out, the series also returned to the big screen with Universal Soldier The Return (I couldn’t find any air-dates for it, but The Return came out in July, so it’s possible Unfinished Business was actually broadcast after it). Van Damme returned as Deveraux, but none of the other original cast or characters appear. The Return ignores the events of the TV films, but then again it also appears to ignore the first Universal Soldier as well.

    It’s the most baffling sequel since Highlander II: The Quickening. In the first film, Deveraux is man who’s been turned into a machine and is battling to claw back his humanity. He is stoic, silent and unworldly. In The Return he’s a goofball single-parent. Deveraux was one of Van Damme’s most interesting parts – it’s one of few times he’s actually been a character, as opposed to just JCVD, but this time he’s a kick-boxer or in the foreign legion or a Timecop or whatever.

    Deveraux in The Return is Van Damme, talking normally and cracking jokes. He’s barely even Van Damme – the character is just a cypher and a cheesy smile. The first one ends with Deveraux having escaped the program and trying to put a life back together. In this one he’s just working for them again, all cheery.

    The plot revolves around the UniSol program being shut down due to budget cuts. (They didn’t shut it down when it was responsible for the deaths of dozens of civilians, but you do when you run out of cash?) Its HAL-like central computer isn’t happy about it, so it takes control of the soldiers and turns them against the military. Instead of Lundgren, we get the great Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite) as the voice, and later body of the evil computer, and former WCW wrestler Goldberg as a henchman UniSol.

    It’s an average enough Van Damme movie, somewhat ruined by the decision to set all the fight scenes to some largely terrible metal songs, which destroys the flow of the action. Van Damme versus White is pretty good, though, and there’s a hilarious bit where Dervaux’s daughter uses Goldberg as a sled to get down some stairs, but all in all it’s a largely terrible movie. It feels straight-to-video, and flopped both critically and commercially.

    Much like Luc Deveraux, following its failure, the Universal Soldier series would spend the next decade seemingly dead, but actually just laying dormant until a brilliant scientist would resurrect it and turn it into something new and wonderful.

    That scientist’s name was John Hyams. He’s the son of veteran director and Den Of Geek favourite Peter Hyams, who has some really interesting films on his CV, including 2010, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the unique buddy film Running Scared, and the clever TV satire Stay Tuned. Hyams Senior also worked with Van Damme twice on Timecop and Sudden Death.

    The idea of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren coming back for a Universal Soldier sequel in 2009 seemed like a cruel joke. Like making fun of how far their careers had fallen. Like when Mickey Rourke returned to make Another 9½ Weeks when his career was on the skids. But somehow Hyams created something wonderful.

    “I thought, ‘If I can make the best direct-to-video movie anyone’s seen, then maybe that will get more notice than if I make a so-so theatrically released movie,'” Hyams told Village Voice. Choosing to enter the stigmatized world of direct-to-video led to his agent dropping him as soon as he took the gig, but it paid off in the long run.

    Regeneration hits you from its startling opening scene. It begins with a slow and methodical tracking shot, following the son and daughter of the Ukrainian Prime Minister through a museum. The scene suddenly cuts as they exit the building, and their car is hit by an armoured SUV. The thunderous cut is amplified by an extra flipping around seven foot in the air when he is hit by the first car (according to the commentary, the stuntman blew out his knee doing it) and it shocks the movie instantly into life. The Prime Minister’s children are kidnapped as the resulting chase is shot from mostly inside the armored car, creating a real sense of claustrophobia and confusion. Hyams manages to pull off the rapid shaky editing and camerawork without making it unintelligible, like most hacks do when they try to rip off The Bourne Supremacy.

    The kids have been kidnapped by rebels who are held up in the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and threatening to blow them up along with the radioactive material if the Ukrainian government doesn’t release a load of political prisoners. Oh, and they’ve got a their own super-powerful next generation UniSol backing them up, played by Belarusian MMA fighter Andrei ‘The Pit Bull’ Arlovski (in an early info dump we find out there was a second UniSol program that experimented with cloning, but more on that later). The US military get involved and send their remaining Mark I UniSols, but they are quickly (and beautifully) dispatched by Arlovski. They turn to the final UniSol, Luc Deveraux, now back to being Jean-Claude Van Damme.

    We don’t see Van Damme until 15 minutes into the film. After the other UniSols are killed, it’s revealed he’s undergoing rehabilitation in Switzerland. We then cut directly to a close-up of Van Damme’s face, looking directly into the camera. No background, no context. Van Damme looks withered and haggard. He no longer has the cheesy, annoying grin of The Return. Instead, he now has an incredible, interesting face. He looks like he has been through hell. And in a lot of ways he has.

    Watching the Universal Soldier films in order presents an interesting Van Damme biography. In 1992 he is a naïve youngster, (relatively) new to America and especially Hollywood, much like the freshly reanimated Deveraux who doesn’t understand the modern world. By 1999, by all accounts, he was an insufferable brat. The fame got to him, he developed a massive cocaine habit and he was off having flings with Kylie Minogue. The Luc Deveraux of The Return is intensely annoying, with a face you just want to punch. Van Damme abandons everything that makes the character interesting just so he can mug to the camera.

    But by 2009 he’d been through hell and survived. “I was fucked up, man,” he admitted to The Guardian on the press tour for The Expendables 2. He was diagnosed as bipolar, was suicidal and tore through four marriages. He demanded the same money that Jim Carrey was getting in the late 90s, so Hollywood cast him out.

    “I was on the blacklist. That was it,” he continued in the same interview.

    But he got off the coke, kept working and survived. He was stuck in the DTV ghetto, but he started to make some more interesting films. 2007’s Until Death was his take on Bad Lieutenant, in which he stretched his acting by playing a heroin-addicted cop. A year later he starred as himself in the brutally-honest JCVD.

    The face that stares back at us in Regeneration is not just that of tortured Vietnam vet experimented on by the US government, but also a cautionary tale of Hollywood excess (when Dolph Lundgren’s character reappears as apart of the cloning subplot, staring vacantly in suspended animation, it has a similar effect). The Deveraux of Regeneration could easily be a stand in for the Van Damme of 2009.

    Hyams’ film-making is miles ahead of anything you’d normally expect in a straight-to-DVD action film. The cinematography around the Chernobyl site is wonderful. It’s highly saturated, almost sepia toned inside the plant, with rusty, dark red hues amongst the shadows. Outdoors, a similar effect is used but with icy blues instead of the reds, capturing the chilly feel of the post-Soviet abandoned countryside. Just as much care is taken with sound design – there’s a dark, electronic score and lots ambient buzzing complementing the lack of humanity in the UniSol and the cold metal of Chernobyl.

    Of course, the action is expertly handled as well. Hyams shoots everything with a steady clarity, making everything simple to follow yet still thrilling. Prior to Regeneration, Hyams’ most notable work was the documentary The Smashing Machine about MMA star Mark Kerr, and he manages to capture the visceral violence of mixed martial arts even in a preposterous film about cloned super-soldiers. In particular he highlights the ‘ground and pound’ style popular in UFC in the choreography.

    After taking down their opponents, the UniSols – Arlovski in particular – will constantly hit their opponent with the same, repetitive blow over and over again, with the camera lingering motionless for a just a beat or two longer than is comfortable. It really makes the UniSols feel like inhuman machines, with no thought of style let along compassion. When Van Damme and Lundgren finally face each other they literally destroy the set, tumbling through walls and destroying support pillars as the two lumbering beasts throw themselves at each other.

    The standout action sequence comes when a rejuvenated Van Damme storms the surrounding buildings of Chernobyl, taking out waves and waves of rebels. Hyams follows him with a steady tracking shot, only cutting for close ups of his strikes’ impact. He keeps the camera at about shoulder height throughout, giving it a sense of calm detachment, mimicking Deveraux’s calm throughout the chaos. He is also beautifully framed in the center of the screen, with the perspective lines of the corridors nearly always directed toward him.

    One of the most interesting things about Regeneration is how it almost lacks a protagonist. Van Damme and Lundgren are obviously the biggest names in the cast, but both of them actually have an ‘and’ or ‘with’ credit. Lundgren’s role is essentially just an extended third-act cameo, but while Van Damme is the hero of the piece, he (intentionally) doesn’t do much until the last half hour. He’s mostly restricted to the containment unit on the military base, brooding silently. We know he’s going to explode eventually, and part of the fun is waiting for that to happen, but he doesn’t drive the action until then.

    Andrei Arlovski is actually first billed in the credits, but he’s the almost silent bad guy. Prior to Van Damme, Arlovski and Lundgren going at it in the final third, the action mostly consists of waves of soldiers being comically wiped out by the evil UniSol – no ‘good guy’ really lasts long enough for them to become our point of view. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but the UniSols are far more interesting than the regular humans. The idea that they might be the next stage in human evolution comes up more in the next instalment, but this feels like a precursor to that idea.

    Eventually, a soldier, played by another MMA star Mike Pyle, goes in to rescue the Prime Minister’s son and daughter and becomes our de facto protagonist, but he’s just not as interesting as the other three. It’s probably the film’s main flaw, but it’s actually very effective for a film about dehumanization to forgo the concept of having a relatable human being at its core.

    Regeneration did very well in the DTV market, even getting a theatrical release in a few territories, which meant Hyams could come back for part four. (Or is it part three, if they ignores The Return? But it’s also technically the sixth one. Never mind). This time though, Hyams was on board from the start, instead of coming to a film with a story already in place. And if Regeneration is ultimately just a great, violent action movie with a few interesting ideas, Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning is something else entirely.

    Day Of Reckoning shifts the focus from Luc Deveraux to new protagonist John, played by British martial artist Scott Adkins. You might recognize Adkins as Van Damme’s sidekick is The Expendables 2 or a small role in Zero Dark Thirty, but he’s really made a name for himself in a few incredible DTV martial arts films including the Undisputed sequels and Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear. He’s also the first protagonist of a Universal Soldier film that hasn’t had a guest shot in Friends.

    The film has an even better opening than Regeneration. All shot from his POV, it starts with Adkins in bed with his wife. His young daughter wakes him up, saying she heard a monster in the house. He eventually agrees to go and investigate, and finds a group of masked men in his kitchen, who proceed to beat him senseless with a crowbar. The effect of having this beating shown all through Adkin’s eyes is truly nauseating, with blood trickling from the screen and painful ringing on the soundtrack – it’s as difficult to take as the fire extinguisher beating in Irreversible (and not the only time the film will tip its hat to Gaspar Noe). Eventually, the men drag his wife and daughter in front of him, and before shooting them in the face, the lead intruder pulls off his mask to reveal Van Damme’s Luc Deveraux, with a shaved head and even more haggard expression than Regeneration.

    Adkins awaken from his coma in a hospital where a FBI agent promptly informs him that Deveraux is the man who murdered his family, and that he has gone rogue. Adkins swears to get revenge, and find out why his family were killed. Which is totally not how the film plays out.

    It’s kind of hard to explain the plot without spoiling it too much – it’s actually difficult to explain the plot full stop to be honest. Essentially, Van Damme has gone underground, becoming a sort of totemic cult leader to a militia of UniSols (including a new clone of Dolph Lundgren). He’s discovered how to give the UniSols back their freedom, but retain their superhuman powers. A cloned Andrei Arlovski is sent by the FBI to attack the militia, but turned by Lungren and sent after Adkins, who is slowly learning that there’s far more to his connection to Deveraux than meets the eye.

    The plot is intentionally oblique. It’s not impossible to guess where things are going, but the film requires you to do a lot of work – the back-story of Van Damme’s UniSol cult is never touched upon, previously killed off characters return without explanation (they’re clones, but you have to work that out for yourself), and character motivation is often hard to decipher, especially in the first half of the film. But it’s all about creating a mood of paranoia. The film owes more to Philip K Dick than Roland Emmerich’s original.

    Adkins’ character goes through something similar to the protagonists of Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep and We Can Remember This For You Wholesale (adapted for the screen as Blade Runner and Total Recall respectively) – he discovers that his memories, and therefore his identity, might not be reliable. If he is not who he believes he is, then is he really himself? And most importantly, even if the events did not happen, are the emotions he felt still real?

    The ending is particularly striking in this sense. Without giving the game away, Adkins ultimately chooses the emotionally satisfying conclusion as opposed to the ‘good’ ending, regardless of its consequences. If the previous Universal Soldier films were about dehumanization, Day Of Reckoning is about re-humanization. Yet Adkins ultimately chooses to reject the enlightenment, picking the easier, or simpler, option. We get the ending that we ‘want’ based of the film’s opening scenes, but by the end we realize that might not necessarily be a good thing.

    Stylistically, the film is a complete departure from Regeneration. It looks and sounds extraordinary. Whereas Regeneration looked washed out and over-saturated, Day Of Reckoning is full of bright, pop-art colors and hallucinatory images. Early in the film. Andrei Arlovski tracks down the UniSols to a psychedelic brothel that owes more than a little to Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void. While the UniSols indulge in all sorts of comically debauched acts with hookers, they are surrounded by blinding pink neon and a throbbing electronic score.

    Dolph Lundgren struts around manically, at this point looking more like a Tom Of Finland illustration come to life than a real person. When Arlovski confronts him, he injects him with a serum that unlocks him from his programming. The screen starts to flicker and eventually turn into a full-on strobe, and a barely visible Van Damme stares back through the light. Accompanied by screeching atonal audio, it’s hypnotic and genuinely painful to watch to at points.

    The UniSol cult’s hidden base is just as visually startling. Hidden deep within the hot Louisiana swamps, it’s a claustrophobic hellhole, lit with hideous unnatural blue and purple lighting. It’s a swarming homoerotic mess of steroided-up muscle freaks and meat-heads, with violence ready to explode at any moment. The shaven-headed Van Damme hovers around in black and white voodoo-like face paint, more enigma than man. Hyams had credited Apocalypse Now as an influence and it definitely has a Heart Of Darkness like craziness to it.

    The film has a dream-like feeling of David Lynch films. It’s most notable in the hallucinatory moments, but even the more restrained scenes, it has a hazy, disconcerting feel, like being unsure if you are asleep or awake. The locations all feel bland and generic, and have no sense of place – rather than being a negative, this only helps the film’s sense of confusion. It’s the feeling of Anywheresville USA that makes Blue Velvet so disturbing.

    While Adkins is very much the star, the specter of Van Damme lingers across the film like a specter. Current day JCVD has such a great face, and Hyams shoots him in shadows, bringing out all the lines and contours so that he just needs to stare intensely to capture the whole screen. It would be wonderful to see him have a late period resurgence as an odd-looking character actor.

    Again, the film works as the next chapter in this weird biography of JCVD. In the world of Universal Soldier, the idea of Luc Deveraux has become also most more important than the man himself. real life, following on from the naive kid, the coke head and the survivor, we are now onto Van Damme the icon. He can now appear in beer adverts and viral videos doing the splits. Everyone knows who Jean-Claude Van Damme is, even if they would never watch one of his films.

    The biggest criticism of the film really is that it is somewhat derivative, and definitely wears its influences on its sleeve. The fact that a straight-to-video sequel to a 1992 Van Damme movie can be compared to the works of Lynch, Noe and Philip K Dick (with some Kubrick and Cronenberg in there as well) is a fantastic achievement, but what’s so interesting is how it melds all these things together into one crazy, visceral experience. It’s truly a one of a kind movie. Plus David Lynch never shot an action sequence like the ones in Day Of Reckoning.

    Scott Adkins is an incredible screen fighter, and there’s a bravura five minute action scene shot in one take (with a few digital cheats I’m sure), where he storms Van Damme’s base, taking out around 20 UniSols. The piece de resistance, however, is Adkins and Arlovski going at it halfway through the film. After a freeway chase, the two of them tumble into a sporting goods shop and start laying into each other with baseball bats, dumbbells and bowling balls. It’s both beautifully choreographed and wince-inducingly violent, making great use of the UniSols’ enhanced strength, and the final impact is jaw-dropping (and too good to spoil here).

    The Universal Soldier series is an unusual one. A competent, enjoyable yet forgettable blockbuster had its name dragged through the dirt due to some terrible sequels, yet somehow emerged as something utterly unique two decades later. People moan about the lack of originality in American cinema these days, with the over reliance on reboots and sequels. What’s really disappointing, though, is that nobody takes advantage of the freedom that a pre-sold name can give filmmakers.

    John Hyams would never have got a film as audacious as Day Of Reckoning made, even on its meager budget, without it having a recognizable title and two name stars. The combination of those meant that it was going to shift units on DVD whatever, no matter what the actual film was like. So he could almost make whatever he liked. It’s similar to what Phil Lord and Christopher Miller did with 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie: they took a seemingly cynical property movies and made really interesting stories out of them.

    This is why it’s so depressing every time a film like the new Carrie or Total Recall just lethargically goes through the motions. If Universal Soldier can become something wonderful, virtually anything can.


  19. I don’t know what kind of skin treatment Jean does but it has not worked for him. Unless this is from years of drug/alcohol use. I am his age and I am a sun worshiper and do not look as bad. Needs to consider cosmetic surgery.


  20. How a He-Man sequel and a Spider-Man movie became Cyborg:

    How did an 80s Van Damme action flick emerge from a failed Spider-Man movie and Masters Of The Universe sequel? Ryan takes a look…


  21. I didn’t know he married Gladys Portugues. Reading the article prompted me to search for more information, and it turns out she just filed for a second divorce.


  22. Awesomely Shi**y Movies: Timecop:

    Timecop was released in 1994 and stars the aforementioned Van Damme as Max Walker, a police officer for the futuristic government agency known as the Time Enforcement Commission. See time travel has been invented and predictably exploited by criminals for either financial gain or to alter the timeline to their advantage, necessitating the formation of the TEC. Walker stumbles onto the case of Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver), who has become head of the Commission and is abusing his position by stealing money from the past to fund his future Presidential campaign. What follows is a pretty intriguing-but-not-good sci-fi action thriller as Walker travels back and forth between 1994 and 2004 to thwart McComb’s plot and retroactively prevent his own wife’s murder at the hands of McComb’s agents.

    The movie was directed by Peter Hyams (who helmed the Sean Connery sci-fi western Outland, as well as the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001) and is loosely based on a comic book story.

    So let’s take a look at what was good about this movie, and then we’ll look at what wasn’t.

    The Awesome

    Van Damme

    While no great actor by any means, Van Damme is perfectly believable as the emotionally scarred, world-weary 2004 incarnation of Walker. After losing his wife ten years earlier he now lives alone and is married to his work, becoming the ace timecop on the force. Van Damme projects the right level of melancholy and incorruptibility, so we both feel for him and admire his veracity. The occupation of a TEC cop would certainly afford a person ample opportunity to go into business for himself (or for someone else), as Walker’s partner does early in the film. But Walker stays true to his profession until late in the movie when his mission and his past life intersect. There’s even a sense of conflict as Walker is torn between maintaining the integrity of the timeline and saving his wife from death.


  23. I still enjoy all of JC’s movies. He is still an awesome martial artist and actor no matter his past transgressions. He can still deliver! Keep it up Van Damme. I will be watching


    • Honestly, every time I see him on TV (last night was “Nowhere to Hide” which I think is okay) I think of this article, and Lebeau’s work here has made me kinda like the guy.


  24. Did vam dame make a move called Quest. Where is it playing.


  25. Nostalgia Critic: Double Team

    Dennis Rodman and Jean-Claude?


  26. When Jean-Claude Van Damme became Hong Kong’s gateway to Hollywood:

    In Jean-Claude Van Damme’s latest film, the organ-theft thriller Pound Of Flesh, he owns the screen. He appears in almost every scene, and when he’s present, all the action revolves around him. Plot points exist only to nudge him from beatdown to beatdown. Other characters lives’ begin and end in relation to his. And the camera drools over his full splits with a fetishistic intensity rarely found outside of hardcore pornography. It’s a messy, dim, stylistically indistinct film, but that hardly matters to its intended audience, because this is also a JCVD movie. Director Ernie Barbarash had one job: to construct a hundred-minute obstacle course for his leading man to punch, kick, strangle, and stab his way through. Without Van Damme, the film would have zero value, and no reason to exist.

    That wasn’t always the case with his movies. Even as Van Damme began to age out of his late-’80s-to-early-’90s heyday, he attracted accomplished, aesthetically assured filmmakers that could do more than assemble starring vehicles for an idiosyncratic actor. Between 1993 and 1998, three titans of the Hong Kong New Wave tapped Van Damme as the poster boy for their big debuts in Western cinema. Action grandmaster John Woo brought him to the bayou for Hard Target, Tsui Hark stuck him with Dennis Rodman in Double Team and then managed to take a step down by pairing him with Rob Schneider in Knock Off, and Ringo Lam had him pulling double duty as a French cop and his Russian twin in Maximum Risk.

    These four films represent the unlikeliest of international efforts: Chinese films financed with American money starring a Belgian martial-arts expert. At the time, cinephiles bronzing and mounting their VHS copies of Woo’s Bullet In The Head cried sacrilege, but posterity has proven Van Damme was an ideal conduit between Hong Kong and Hollywood. In his elegant combination of grace and brutality, Van Damme split the difference between bullheaded American action and agile New Wave cool.

    Like any fighter worth his salt, Van Damme makes it all looks easy. But his self-styled method of combat actually fuses a complex array of disciplines into a personalized form uniquely suited for Woo’s signature mode of filmmaking. Onscreen, it can sometimes seem as if Van Damme is having trouble connecting one word to the next, but his physicality contains multitudes. A young Van Damme began learning Shotokan karate at age 10, earning his black belt by 18 and mastering Muay Thai and Taekwondo along the way. His training let him get a leg up on the art of kickboxing (which appropriately propelled him to one of his first leading roles, in 1989’s Kickboxer), but his years spent as a ballet student exerted a comparable influence over his movements. Van Damme pivots from strike to strike as if he’s submerged in water, spinning between kicks with a dancer’s fluidity.

    The rhythm of Van Damme’s attacks provided Woo with an ideal outlet for his stylized marriage of serenity and violence. In the copious fight scenes strewn throughout the 1993 film Hard Target, Woo’s camera matches Van Damme blow for blow, anticipating his next move like an old sparring partner. Woo’s penchant for temporal dilation was in full form, shifting from hyperkinetic speed to slow-mo to bring out the full cinematic effect of Van Damme’s brute force. The climax of Hard Target collects Van Damme’s grizzled ex-Marine Chance Boudreaux (the JCVD approximation of a Cajun accent is a thing of beauty, like a painting someone’s set on fire) and his enemies at a warehouse storing Mardi Gras floats for a bullet-riddled showdown. As Chance sidesteps and evades his opponents, Woo hectically leaps between cuts, juxtaposing extreme close-ups, whip pans, and quick zooms. But when Chance goes in for the kill, snapping a man’s arm over his shoulder, Woo knows to maximize the moment and slow everything to a crawl. The audience can practically hear the individual shards of bone splintering.

    What’s more, Woo contrives an atmosphere of heightened emphasis that accounts for Van Damme’s distinctive (some might say “poor”) acting skills. Van Damme’s Chance has seen some shit, having survived a tour of duty and life on the treacherous streets of N’awlins. To put it flatly, Van Damme does not have the gravitas required to believably inhabit such a role, and his sincerest efforts only land him in strange, confusing territory. The lunatic genius of Hard Target, and, in a larger sense, Woo’s career, is that Van Damme’s incoherent, mumbling pseudo-Cajun is probably the fifth-weirdest element of the film. How can viewers get hung up on Chance’s regionally nonspecific dialect when Wilford Brimley is shooting arrows at armed men from horseback? In one of the film’s silliest flourishes, Van Damme punches an actual snake in the face, then sets it as a booby trap for the men tailing him. At a certain point, Chance’s core ridiculousness settles as another expression of Woo’s maximalist hunger for more, more, more.

    To diminishing returns, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam go even further in creating a tone to match Van Damme’s laughable performances. Watching Double Team and Knock Off back-to-back, it’s easy to get the impression that Tsui’s best plan was to saddle Van Damme with a sidekick flamboyant and irritating enough to draw the audience’s attentions away from the leading man. (It’s just as easy to get the impression that the performers were hastily railing lines of cocaine between takes on set; Double Team includes underwater laser prisons, “cyber-monks,” and a villainous turn from Mickey Rourke at peak Mickey Rourkeitude.) Dennis Rodman takes second billing in Double Team as arms dealer Yaz. Even though Yaz has no stated background in basketball, none of the other characters in the film question why he speaks primarily in b-ball puns. There’s an unspoken agreement between the other characters to overlook this inexplicable behavior, because the folks at home need to be reminded every few minutes that, oh right, Rodman is involved with this film because he’s a career NBA star. And in Knock Off, Rob Schneider is even worse. He and Van Damme are both there to fill the screen as Tsui veers off on insane formal experiments, such as a POV shot from a foot’s perspective as it slides into a shoe, or a shot that follows the electrical current of a phone call as it darts across circuit boards.

    With Maximum Risk, Lam’s camerawork enhances Van Damme’s martial-arts prowess with complementary formal choices. Admittedly, the plot is a bit lackluster, neither as loony as Tsui’s pictures nor as engaging as Woo’s. But Lam captures the balletic brawn in the Van Damme method with a rapturous gaze. Lam spins ravishing footage out of his leading man’s twisting, oiled-up muscles, turning the undercurrent of homoeroticism pervasive in ’80s and ’90s action way up, to surprisingly gorgeous ends. Van Damme and an assassin tangle in a cramped elevator during a climactic battle, and at one point, each has the other in a headlock. Lam tightens his focus with progressively closer shots, the dim elevator lights reflecting off the bulging veins in the men’s foreheads. They look like they could pop at any moment, and Lam’s nimble photography amply ratchets up that tension.

    Van Damme and the Hong Kong school harmoniously coexisted by accepting the humble pleasures of contradiction. They recognize that measures of tranquility are always present in shows of force, and vice versa. In a scene from Hard Target, Brimley’s character retrieves a shotgun that hasn’t been used in years from his crawlspace. Before he hands it to Chance, he admires it for a moment and pumps the barrel. In that moment, and only for a moment, the dust from the gun floats in the light, a faint mist of gold hanging poetically in the air. Symbols don’t get cannier than this: The gun is Van Damme’s, but the dust is Woo’s.


  27. Good Bad Flicks: Maximum Risk (1996)

    Another classic JCVD action flick.


    • I’m a big fan of Good Bad Flicks; I think he does good work. I really like how he explained that the original script and cut of “Crow: City of Angels” was ripped to shreds by Harvey Weinstein. From what the story was supposed to be that he described, it sounded like it would’ve been very good. By the way, What The Hell Happened To Mia Kirshner?


  28. Lies, Litigation, And Jean-Claude Van Damme: An Exploration Into The Reality Behind ‘Bloodsport’:

    By: Dariel Figueroa 10.21.15

    After the death of Bruce Lee, audiences were hungry for a similar breed of action hero, one that could provide moviegoers with the same kind of primal athleticism and martial arts skills. In 1988, Bloodsport gave a first starring role to Jean-Claude Van Damme (who celebrates his 55th birthday this week), a Belgian brawler skilled in the martial art of karate. Van Damme possessed some of the same qualities of Lee: handsome, chiseled from granite, and able to perform difficult feats including flying spin kicks and full splits. Bloodsport wasn’t an Oscar-worthy film in any manner (the original cut was deemed unwatchable and a re-edit was completed before release), but Van Damme’s stoic charisma and the memorable fighting scenes helped turn it into a hit: On a budget of $1.5 million, the film grossed over $11 million worldwide.

    Van Damme plays Frank Dux, a man who goes AWOL from the U.S. Army to compete in the Kumite martial arts tournament. The character and story are purportedly based on the real-life Frank Dux — he is also credited in Bloodsport as the fight coordinator — who claims to have served in the military in Southeast Asia. In 1975, the real Frank Dux, per his account, didn’t shirk his military duties, but he did claim to compete in the shadowy Kumite tournament, a three-day proceeding in the Bahamas that involved some of the best martial artists in the world fighting each other for a chance to call themselves the champion of their respective weight class. Dux’s participation in the 1975 Kumite — which was held once every five years and sponsored by the International Fighting Arts Association (I.F.A.A.) — was detailed in a Black Belt magazine feature in 1980, and served as the inspiration for the Van Damme film. To take the interview with Dux as fact, though, is a shaky proposition from the start — it starts with this disclaimer:

    Although there is no convenient way to verify each and every detail connected with this story, the editors have verified enough of the basic facts to feel confident in publishing it. But since we are not a liberty to share the corroborating evidence with the public, we acknowledge that each reader may have a different idea of what the facts permit him to believe.



    Remember back in 2008 when Jean-Claude Van Damme came out with the self-aware comedic drama JCVD and it seemed like he might become relevant again? Well, 7 years and one Expendables 2 appearance later, and it might happen soon!


  30. Re-Embarking On ‘The Quest’ 20 Years Later

    20 years ago, the biggest action star of the ‘90s not named Stallone or Schwarzenegger attempted to bust out of his comfort zone. It was 1996 and Jean-Claude Van Damme was at the height of his fame, so he decided to try something new. That something turned out to be The Quest. The Belgian action star wanted to direct and instead of choosing something more along the lines of his other features at the time, he opted for a more classical adventure tale. Sure, it has some of the hallmarks of his early films, and even shares some basic narrative beats with his 1988 breakout hit, Bloodsport. That stated, the two films couldn’t be any more different. Whereas Bloodsport is a rip-roaring ‘80s martial


  31. Jean-Claude Van Damme Has Some Interesting Ideas About Donald Trump And The Illuminati


  32. Claude Van Damme’s daughter is even more badass than he is


  33. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s TV MELTDOWN: ‘The Muscles from Brussels’ storms off interview after being asked question about former fling Kylie Minogue

    Liked by 1 person

  34. 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Jean-Claude Van Damme

    Jean-Claude Van Damme is one of an elite set of action heroes such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Dolph Lundgren, who are the epitome of what was so great about ’80s, and ’90s action movies. He also comes from an era where social media didn’t exist, and although he was famous, not every move was publicized like it is for celebrities now which means there is so much fans don’t know about the JCVD! Check it out:


  35. Retrospective / Review: Universal Soldier (1992)

    Good Bad Flicks: Universal Soldier: The Return (1999)


  36. he got. Older. Everybody. Does


    • That’s true, but it wouldn’t make for much of an article. Also, age doesn’t account for everything. Which do you think was more significant, age or Van Damme’s raging drug problems? Other actors his age stayed relevant longer, so I’m guessing age was a minor factor.


      • Yeah, the films he was in that didn’t do well really began to add up in the late 1990’s (“Double Team”? No rebound there), and he was only in his late 30’s, so I don’t think age was much of a factor. Maybe he was just all played out for a time, and I’m sure the cocaine problem wasn’t helping his career (other than maybe keeping him awake).


  37. Do you really wonder what happened to Van Dam? He was a terrible actor in terrible movies. The fact that he was included in any movie after his first movie was a real surprise. He was that terrible


    • Van Damme it, I kind of like “Death Warrant” & “Double Impact”. Overall, his flicks did have a fanbase, and in the end, that'[s what it’s usually about.


    • Jean-Claude Van Damme Talks w/411 About His New Amazon Series Jean-Claude Van Johnson, Creating a Character With a Serious Emotional Arc, and His Hopes for a Second Season


      • Is Jean-Claude Van Damme actually in on the joke on Amazon’s Jean-Claude Van Johnson?

        “It’s not always clear how aware the actors are that they’re playing versions of themselves,” says Mike Hale. “In the new Amazon series Jean-Claude Van Johnson, it’s not a question — Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Jean-Claude Van Damme, a former action star on the downside of a career that peaked more than 20 years ago. The question is whether Mr. Van Damme is so in on the joke that he forgets it’s supposed to be a joke. Although occasionally funny, Jean-Claude Van Johnson sits in an odd no-man’s-land between clever self-parody and aggrieved vanity project. Even as the show is sending up Mr. Van Damme’s signature balletic splits and his troubled personal life, the tone wobbles — you’re not sure whether you’re supposed to be laughing along with him or giving him a shoulder to cry on.”


  38. Universal Soldier: Regeneration breathed life into both Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career and straight-to-DVD action


  39. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Son Arrested, Allegedly Held Roommate at Knifepoint


  40. Whatever happened to Jean-Claude Van Damme?

    Jean-Claude Van Damme began his public life as a teenager in the 1970s—a Belgian-born martial arts prodigy who became a champion in both karate and kickboxing. In the 1980s and 1990s, the charismatic and photogenic “Muscles from Brussels” became an international movie star with starring roles in fight-focused action hits like Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Hard Target, and Timecop. (He even had a cameo as himself on Friends.) And then, just as fast and unlikely as his rise, came the fall. Here’s how the man born Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg has occupied himself in recent years.

    He got greedy and it hurt his career

    Jean-Claude Van Damme reached his commercial peak with Timecop. The 1994 time-travel thriller earned $44 million at the domestic box office—the most of any live-action movie he’s toplined. While the stars of other big 1994 hits remain major draws—Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Sandra Bullock (Speed), and Jim Carrey (The Mask)—Van Damme’s profile fell far faster. Why? Partly because he miscalculated his clout and marketability at a key moment. 

    After the success of Timecop, Van Damme was reportedly offered a three-movie deal that would have paid him an astounding $12 million per film. Around the same time, Carrey made headlines by becoming the first $20 million man, so Van Damme rejected the $12 million and asked for the same fee Carrey had negotiated. The three-movie offer was rescinded, and Van Damme ended up on what he later described as a Hollywood “blacklist,” effectively ending his blockbuster career. 

    “Jim Carrey was being paid a fortune. And I wanted to play with the system,” Van Damme told The Guardian in 2012. “Like an idiot. Ridiculous.”


  41. Jean-Claude Van Damme to star in The Bouncer

    Jean-Claude Van Damme has scored a starring role in a Taken-esque movie, as Variety reports the Muscles from Brussels is setting up to play the lead role in The Bouncer.

    Van Damme will play the role of Lukas, a single father of an 8-year-old girl who works as a bouncer at a rowdy nightclub. When a confrontation goes too far and Lukas ends up in jail, his daughter is taken into the care of social services. 

    So far, this has all the makings of a modern-day tragedy, much moreso than the rollicking good old Road House-style time one would expect from a martial artist’s movie about bouncing. So here’s the catch: the only way that Lukas can get his daughter back is to take down a high-profile criminal on behalf of Interpol. Now we’re talking.

    We would’ve probably hired an attorney, but hey, if it’s quicker to fight your way out of a problem? Go nuts, man.

    The Bouncer is being directed by French director Julien Leclercq, with a script by Jérémie Guez, who received a screenwriting credit for work on the upcoming movies Burn Out and The Night Eats the World.

    The Bouncer is set to begin filming in January. To see Van Damme in action prior to then, check out the action-comedy series he’s headlining for Amazon, Jean-Claude Van Johnson. The pilot episode is available for streaming now; the rest of the first season will follow on December 15.


  42. The Truth About What Happened to Jean-Claude Van Damme


  43. From Kickboxer to Punchline: The Rise and Fall of Jean-Claude Van Damme

    Jonathan Bernstein
    15 DECEMBER 2017 • 12:21PM

    As Jean-Claude Van Damme’s meta comedy series Jean-Claude Van Johnson is release on Amazon, Jonathan Bernstein recalls the highs and lows of ‘the muscles from Brussels’
    Jean-Claude Van Varenburg was a chubby fearful Belgian child who, through sheer force of will, transformed himself from a bully-magnet into a karate champion with 18 knockouts to his name. In 1981, Van Varenburg retired from competitive martial arts at the age of 20 and set his sights on Hollywood stardom.

    It didn’t matter that he had little more than a rudimentary grasp of English, limited funds and few contacts in the film industry; that same force of will propelled the newly-christened Jean Claude Van Damme to Los Angeles where his persistence and willingness to show off his trademark roundhouse kick won him bit parts in several B-movies. After an abortive few weeks sweating inside the alien costume on the Arnold Schwarzenneger movie, Predator, Van Damme got his big Hollywood break.

    In 1986, he spotted Menahem Golan, one half of the Israeli producing team behind the notoriously cheap and scrappy exploitation studio Cannon Films, eating breakfast at a Beverly Hills restaurant. Van Damme kicked his leg over Golan’s head and then did the mid-air splits. Golan recognized a fellow hustler. He also saw, in Van Damme’s combination of personal trainer good looks and physical prowess, a perfect addition to Cannon’s roster of action performers which included the grizzled likes of Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson.

    That same year Golan paid Van Damme $25,000 to appear in Bloodsport, the true-ish story of Frank Dux, an American martial artist who kicked and punched his way to ultimate victory in a clandestine Hong Kong to-the-death tournament. Bloodsport gathered dust on Cannon’s shelf for two years until its belated release in 1988 when it became one of the little studio’s biggest hits.

    The blueprint for much of Van Damme’s subsequent filmography was established in this movie: he played an underdog, out of his element; he was outmatched and intimidated by a bigger, more brutal opponent (in this case, Bolo Yeung’s killing machine Chong Li); he humbled himself and submitted to a gruelling training schedule until he was mentally and physically ready to face his ultimate battle where he would be beaten to an inch of his life before rallying at the last minute and unleashing either his roundhouse kick or his mid-air splits, which brought him victory and the crowd of onlookers to their feet.

    Cannon happily took advantage of the fleet fists and feet of their newest box-office attraction, putting him to work in Black Eagle, Cyborg. Lionheart, Death Warrant and other titles beloved by habituees of 1980s video stores. One movie from this era, 1989’s Kickboxer, is widely regarded as Van Damme’s Greatest Hit. All the familiar tropes are present and correct: underdog, brutal opponent (Michel Qissi’s sneering sadist Tong Po), gruelling training – but with the motivation that Van Damme’s Kurt Sloane is fighting to avenge his brother who was paralyzed in a Muay Thai ring.

    By 1991, Van Damme’s oiled chest and gravity-defying kicks were as familiar to talk show audiences as they were to the denizens of fleapit multiplexes where his movies tended to play. Even those unfamiliar with his body of work were familiar with his affectionate nickname, the Muscles From Brussels. But by 1991, Van Damme wanted more. “When I came to this country, they signed me for independent, low-budget movies with small companies like Cannon. Dumb stories. The brother dies, I come for revenge, win, people love it, it makes lots of money. These are movies made for a million dollars. But now I have to come out of that cocoon. I really believe I can act. I have to search for good stories, good directors who can really put a plot together.”

    Van Damme’s dissatisfaction and his ambition were understandable. He had risen to prominence during a boom time for international action icons. Schwarzennger had the Terminator franchise. Stallone had Rocky and Rambo. Bruce Willis had Die Hard. Steven Seagal had graduated from monosyllabic bone-breaker to a massive global hit with Under Siege. Studios were frantically snapping up a new generation of potential action heroes: from sports stars like Brian Bosworth and Howie Long to Brandon Lee and martial arts hopefuls Mark Dascascos and Jeff Wincott.

    Why shouldn’t Van Damme graduate to the rarified upper echelon? He had signature moves few were capable of emulating. He did not look completely ridiculous playing love scenes with female co-stars. His command of English was no worse than Schwarzenneger’s.

    But somehow that transformative hit, that potential franchise that brought out an audience wider than his faithful constituency, never quite happened. He was paired with a co-star of equal clout (Dolph Lundgren in 1992’s Universal Soldier), he starred in Hard Target, the first disappointing American studio project from Hong Kong action royalty, John Woo. He showed his range playing twin kickboxers in Double Impact.

    He had his own potential Terminator in 1994’s Timecop and the same year, pulled down his biggest ever payday, 8 million dollars, for the video game adaptation Street Fighter. Van Damme’s celebrity was sufficient to see him show up on the post-Superbowl episode of Friends in 1996. He even got to make his directorial debut –and swan song – with The Quest, which took the time-honoured Bloodsport template and sprinkled in silent-movie slapstick, a gang of adorable pickpocketing French orphans and Roger Moore.

    The movies Van Damme made in the Nineties are probably someone’s favourites. Sudden Death, his 1995 Die-Hard-in-a-hockey-stadium, might have its fans. Double Team, the first disappointing American studio project from Hong Kong action royalty, Tsui Hark (also designed to launch the action career of Dennis Rodman) and Maximum Risk, the actually not-bad American studio debut from Hong Kong action royalty Ringo Lam, might be on someone’s Top Ten list. But none of them did what Van Damme desperately wanted them to do. They failed to broaden his appeal. They failed to attract the A-list directors and the universally-appealing stories he saw as his due. They failed to alter his perception as second-tier action star.

    It could be argued that Van Damme’s Nineties output was not significantly less successful than Jason Statham’s films or the movies Dwayne Johnson made at the outset of his career. But both Statham and Johnson had the opportunity to parachute into already established franchises and take supporting roles in genres outside action. Van Damme, who had four failed marriages and a 10-gram-a-day cocaine habit behind him by his mid-30s, had no such backup plans. When the starring roles in big studio movies stopped coming his way, he began drifting listlessly through indistinguishable international actioners with increasingly reduced budgets made by companies that could only aspire to the grandeur of Cannon Films.

    Reduced circumstances, limited name recognition and endless personal setbacks proved the perfect motivation for Van Damme’s wholly unexpected performance in 2008’s JCVD. He finally got the director and story he had been searching for and it was a project that took an unflinching look at his tumble from grace. Back in his native Belgium for another low-budget straight-to-DVD action movie, the film maroons Van Damme in the middle of a bank heist during which he has an existential crisis and reflects on his divorces, his drug problems and the state of his career. Nothing Van Damme had previously done indicated that he possessed the self-awareness or vulnerability to place himself under such a pitiless spotlight. All the more disappointing that he followed the widely-praised movie by plunging into more anonymous action films.

    After making a rare big screen appearance as Vilain, the bad guy in the second of Stallone’s “retirement home for aging tough guys” Expendables, Van Damme then went full circle with the upcoming remake of Kickboxer. Once the eager young martial artist out to avenge his brother, this time around, he plays the sage mentor who trains the fast-kicking neophyte until he’s ready to face his fearsome opponent.

    Over the decades, Jean Claude Van Damme has been a champion, a nobody, a contender and a punchline. His career may not have taken him where he thought he wanted it to go, but he knows who he is. “I’m not a movie star. I’m a brand name. Van Damme is like Levi’s. I go on vacation and everywhere I go, people love me for my name, not for my movies.”

    Jean-Claude Van Johnson is available now on Amazon Prime Video


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