America might be feeling a bit hostile towards Belgium after they knocked us out of the World Cup, but never forget that besides waffles, fries, and damn good beer, they also offer one of America’s highest-demand imports: graceful, fully-extended flying kicks to the face.
Since appearing as an extra in the 1984 flop exploitation film, Breakin’, Jean-Calude Van Damme has been serving up heaping helpings of heels right to bad guys’ domes with elegant precision. He caught his big break with Bloodsport, and he had everyone thinking he would soon be the next Schwarzenegger.
However, after a string of literally kickass 90s action titles, he had a bright career ruined by the a stinking mound of feces so bountiful that it would impress even Jeff Goldblum. Street Fighter left such a bad taste in everyone’s mouth that it was rushed out of box offices after two weekends and even caused Raul Julia to give up his acting career. Yes, that was a tasteless joke.
But was Van Damme really that unmarketable? Was it fair for studios to give up on him whenever they continued to let Keanu Reeves look confused in front of the camera? Is JCVD’s only current marketable skill doing splits on Volvo semi-trucks? I think not, and here’s five movies to justify why…
Following on the coattails of Bloodsport was Kickboxer. The film used a majority of the same story beats to set up the plot; Van Damme follows a mentor who competes in an underground martial arts tournament, who only manages to be brutally beaten within an inch of his life by an unscrupulous opponent. Van Damme vows revenge, but must first hone his skills and gain both mental and physical strength, eventually conquering himself before he can defeat his opponent.
The biggest difference with Kickboxer is that it comes across as much more lighthearted. The villain certainly growls and intimidates, but the majority of scenes focus on Van Damme acting naïve and goofy while sporting day-glo tanktops. He manages to play up his charm, though, and it makes for quite an appealing and fun movie.
What really steals the show in this film are the top-notch training montages. Daniel-san can take his “wax on, wax off” bullshit back to kindergarten because Van Damme is facing some serious opponents to build up his skills. Enemies like, um, some bamboo. And some pots and pads. And his greatest nemesis: a bigass tree.
The highlight of the film is a scene where Van Damme’s trainer baits Ton Po’s gang by getting Van Damme stinko at a bar then inciting a drunken brawl. Van Damme dispatches his foes easily in a convincing stupor, which draws Ton Po’s manager into setting up a match.
Van Damme’s comeback in the final fight is also nothing short of epic.
Twice the Van Damage for the price of one admission? Count me in!
Combining Batman’s origin story with the Parent Trap, Double Impact follows the re-united twins Alex and Chad (both played by Van Damme) as they learn the truth behind their parents’ ruthless assassination.
By far the best aspect of this film is Van Damme’s commitment to playing two completely different roles. Chad is a slightly femmed-up version of Van Damme’s typical pretty boy male lead, but Alex is a whole different animal. The story goes that while Chad was raised by a Belgian convent and learned to be a nice guy, Alex was raised on the streets of Hong Kong and is more of an anti-hero than anything else.
When the estranged brothers meet for the first time, the two butt heads, and Van Damme manages to capture Alex’s imposing nature and gruff charisma quite adeptly. He even boasts a different fighting style; Chad displays Van Damme’s omnipresent karate skills, but Alex prefers more visceral approaches, such as quick jabs and improvised weapons.
The dual leads also provide excellent concurrent story arcs where both Van Dammes get to square off against a big bad at the climax, with Bolo Yeung returning from Bloodsport to give his best Donkey Kong impression.
A shameless ripoff of Die Hard, you say? Well, actually… yeah. That’s exactly what this movie is, but it’s also one of the more tense action thrillers of the 90s.
Van Damage plays a traumatized firefighter who has relegated himself to the position of fire marshal at the Pittsburgh Civic Center in lieu of returning to active duty. On the night of Game Seven of the Stanley Cup, a terrorist group seizes control of the Civic Center and takes the US Vice President and several other VIPs hostage.
Like Die Hard, most of the film consists of Van Damme sneaking around and trying to steal back the upper hand from the terrorists. They have planted bombs throughout the building that are wired to blow when the game clock expires. They also kidnap Van Damme’s daughter by dressing up in the Penguin mascot suit – no kidding.
The tension comes from the ticking clock aspect as well as Van Damme’s seeming underdog status. Several expectations are also violated, leading to an exciting and not-quite-so-predictable showdown where Van Damme squares off against the bad guys and once more makes us cheer as he jams his boot down their throat.
You may not remember this film coming out in 2008, but it made waves in festival circuits by bending genres and expectations of films in general.
Van Damme portrays a fictionalized version of himself in the late 2000s, complete with a nose-diving career, money troubles, and unseemly custody battles over his children. After being kicked off a set for flubbing a jaw-dropping one-shot action scene, Van Damme feels as if he has finally hit rock bottom.
While Van Damme later runs errands at a post-office, the building is suddenly attacked and everyone is taken hostage. Instead of taking out the aggressors as expected, the film follows a more realistic portrayal, with Van Damme instead making false demands for cash to ease his financial woes in the guise of one of the terrorists. The situation escalates, Van Damme tries to negotiate on behalf of the hostages, but mostly everything turns into a world-class cluster-frak and media circus and the police step in to rescue the remainder of the hostages.
The most surprising scene in the film comes whenever Van Damme begins to address the camera directly in the midst of a scene, breaking the fourth wall. As he openly and emotionally spills his guts in regards to his failings as a career actor, father, and all-around decent human being, he slowly lifts above the set until there are nothing but stage lights in the background.
It makes for a gripping scene that shatters many presumptions about JCVD and movie stardom. The man who was too proud to play the Predator in a goofy suit even manages to shed a few tears and possibly elicits some from his captive audience in the process.
This movie caused many to rethink Van Damme’s relevance, and may have prompted the demand for him to appear in Stallone’s Expenables project, which finally brought him in with Expendables 2.
You have probably never heard of the movie Slinger. That’s because for all intents and purposes the movie no longer exists, except in the bastardized form of Cyborg.
See, Cannon Films had begun seeking film rights for a live-action Spiderman movie at the same time as they began pre-production on a sequel to He-Man. The studio instead ran into financial trouble, both projects fell through, and they desperately sought a method of utilizing the $2 million they spent on sets and costumes to recoup their loss.
Albert Pyun, the slated director of both canceled projects, used this opportunity to draft a visionary sci-fi script using ideas he had been kicking around for quite some time. The film was rushed through production with a lean budget and even tighter shooting schedule.
Pyun was generally dissatisfied with the quality of shots he got during the abbreviated twenty-four day principle photography, and he wanted to reshoot large swathes of the movie. Cannon naturally didn’t take too kindly to this expensive prospect, and instead they decided to can Pyun in the middle of editing the film.
What was left on the cutting room floor was nine-tenths of Pyun’s original storyline regarding a virus that has wiped out most of humanity. Van Damme’s motivation shifts from the generic hero in the theatrical cut to a disinterested mercenary in the vain of Han Solo… but with a Belgian accent. Also missing from the theatrical release was a multitude of genuinely creative auteur shots and the clever all-in-one-day plot structure.
The original cut was made available on Pyun’s personal website once a reel containing dailies and test footage was recovered from a warehouse. This fact mean the Slinger version is pieced together from unfinished footage that definitely doesn’t match the final processing of the theatrical version, but still spins a much more compelling and easy-to-follow yarn than the cheesy and forgettable Cyborg.
Who helped to step in and make a majority of the editing decisions, you ask? That would be Van Damage himself, who bumped up his role to a producer and even used some of his own financial backing to help get the film released.
Also, fun fact: one of the villain actors actually lost his eye during production of this film thanks to an over-zealous JCVD wielding a prop knife. I’d consider that an honor and an insult combined.
Jarrod Lipshy is a BA English graduate and freelance content writer. He collects old videogames, and unfortunately, can’t kick very high.