Born Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg on October 18th 1960, ‘The Muscles From Brussels’ made the executive decision to shrink his massive moniker down into the much more manageable Jean-Claude Van Damme when he debuted in Hollywood with 1986’s martial arts movie No Retreat, No Surrender (read our interview with Keith Strandberg). While it was his first starring role, technically Van Damme had graced the silver screen prior to that in a trio of comical supporting roles he’d probably like to forget. 1984 saw him appear briefly – and mercifully uncredited – as some guy dancing wildly in the background of Breakin’ – and we all know how the man loves to dance. In fact, he started ballet when he was about 16 and still swears by it to this day.
His role as a flamboyantly karate man in French film Monaco Forever didn’t exactly lend itself to the promise of future stardom, but unbeknownst to everyone it was lying in wait. Before those bigger things eventually came calling, Van Damme would risk life and limb as a stunt man on Chuck Norris vehicle Missing in Action. It stood him in good stead for the rest of his career, really: If you can survive Chuck Norris, you can survive anything. Which, incidentally, he sort of has, on and off the set. The man’s been married five times, after all.
While Van Damme might’ve played villainous Russian fighter Ivan Kraschinsky in No Retreat, No Surrender, the fact most audiences actively cheered for him during that climactic final brawl with the film’s good guy, Bruce Lee-wannabe Kurt McKinney, meant one thing: This was not a man to waste playing cardboard Iron Curtain antagonists, and the action landscape of the ‘80s and ‘90s would never be the same. A new star had inadvertently been born, and his next stop was 1988’s Bloodsport. The celluloid legend of alleged ninja and elite military man Frank Dux might’ve been fanciful, but we’d never seen a jump spinning heel kick before and we wanted to see more of them.
Much like a certain Arnold Schwarzenegger who had just recently made a muscular impact on Hollywood with 1985’s Running Man, here was another unlikely foreign action star in the making with a thick accent and a rippling physique. The two were destined to collide in the weirdest way possible when Van Damme was set to ‘star’ as the man in the titular killer alien suit for 1987’s Predator. It was not to be, and to this day the hazy controversy surrounding his eventual dismissal in favour of Kevin Peter Hall lingers. Reportedly, Van Damme complained that the suit was “too clumsy and too hot,” and grew increasingly resentful of the fact he would receive minimal billing – if any. In his autobiography, co-star Jessie Ventura even went so far as to claim Van Damme took his dissatisfaction out on a fellow stunt man, intentionally injuring him. The official line, however, was that he simply wasn’t physically big enough to match biceps with the super-jacked Arnie, Ventura, and Rocky refugee Carl Weathers.
That physical divide turned out to be biggest partition between the respective appeal of these two European behemoths, and the showdown so many action-fans wanted to see would never eventuate. Where Arnie’s sheer size guaranteed a formidable onscreen presence, it was Van Damme’s extensive real-life martial arts experience as a former semi and full-contact competitive kickboxer that made him magnetic to watch – not to mention his testicular elasticity. His ability to perform a full splits didn’t go unnoticed, and was put to a whole lot of creative good use throughout his career. It’s still hard to watch this scene, though.
Bloodsport might be a cult classic now, but at the time it was only the beginning. From 1989 onwards, Van Damme’s fame exploded whilst covering as many bases as possible: Cyborg played host to post-apocalyptic brutality; Kickboxer spiritually picked up where Bloodsport left off; Double Impact set the precedent for Van Damme’s future penchant for playing both sides of a twin dynamic. And then there was 1992’s Universal Soldier. Universal Soldier is particularly notable because it’s the first time Van Damme’s spectacularly chiseled butt took center-stage.
From that point on the bunched-up Belgian buttocks would become somewhat of a talking (selling?) point for the rest of Van Damme’s career, which only picked up more steam following his savage showdown with fellow foreign-fighter-turned-thespian Dolph Lundgren at the climax of Universal Soldier. Perhaps his perky posterior had something to do with it, but subsequently 1993’s Hard Target and Nowhere to Run saw the man nominated for Most Desirable Male by the MTV Movie Awards.
Then, tragedy struck. That tragedy was Street Fighter, the last film Raúl Juliá would make prior to his death in 1994 and the first real bomb Van Damme spearheaded right into unenviable box office notoriety. Scenes such as this are hilarious now, but at the time you wanted to dragon punch the memory of having seen it out of your head and commit your soul to the flames of a hard-punch hadoken:
Astonishingly this giant floating game-to-movie turd failed to flush Van Damme’s career down the toilet (the same can’t be said for just about every single one of his co-stars), and he hit back in the same year with Timecop. To this day, it remains his highest-grossing film, hauling in $103,646,581 worldwide on the back of a $27 million-dollar budget. Like Double Impact before it, it featured Van Damme playing himself in dual roles.
Sudden Death and Maximum Risk went on to kick ass and take names, but Van Damme’s directorial debut for 1996’s The Quest did not. Not only were critics heavily divided over the film, but it was to end Van Damme’s friendship with longtime friend and the man he portrayed in Bloodsport, Frank Dux. Shortly after the film’s release Dux sued Van Damme, claiming that the script closely resembled one he’d written earlier for a project somewhat unimaginatively titled Enter The New Dragon: The Kumite and that Van Damme had verbally agreed to pay him 2.5% of whatever gross revenue the script produced. Bruce Lee turned in his grave and Van Damme was cleared of Dux’s allegations, but the two men’s relationship never recovered.
In an effort to make new friends, Van Damme elected to star in his first interracial buddy movie with eccentric former basketballer, Dennis Rodman. The result was Double Team. Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon series had proven to be a hit, Sly Stallone and Wesley Snipes had punched together a classic with 1993’s Demolition Man, and Adam Sandler and Damon Wayans had just recently struck gold with Bulletproof, so it all seemed just crazy enough to work. To the contrary, Double Team marked the beginning of a devastating descent into B-grade irrelevancy for the once top-rated fighting man. Universally derided, it even picked up a Worst Screen Couple at the Razzie Awards. In retrospect it’s actually a grand example of ‘90s action pomp at its most definitive, but the damage had been done: Van Damme was no longer a force of Hollywood nature.
What followed was ten years of straight-to-video purgatory – and it was made worse by that old chestnut, substance abuse. Since 1995, Van Damme had been heavily addicted to cocaine. The following year he entered rehab but exited after only one week of treatment, going on to spend up to $10,000 a week on the white devil. His floundering fortunes at the box office only served to exacerbate the problem, and things came to a head when his then-wife filed for divorce in 1997 citing spousal abuse and drug addiction. Knock Off tanked in 1998, Van Damme was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar disorder, and it seemed like things couldn’t get much lower for a man who once rode exceptionally high.
These misfortunes did serve as motivation and he successfully completed another stint in rehab, but his career wasn’t given a legitimate second chance until a decade later when he starred in his first mainstream appearance since Knock Off, 2008’s soul-baring JCVD. Despite the fact it was filmed entirely in French, the titular star found himself nominated for Best Actor at both the 2008 Toronto Film Critics Association Awards and the 2009 Chlotrudist Awards. Much of JCVD’s acclaim stems from the troubled actor’s infamous and abrupt 6-minute monologue wherein he esoterically wrestles with the nature of fame, recounts his many sins, and genuinely sheds manly tears of regret.
An interesting extension on JCVD’s candid outpouring was this year’s British-made reality show, Jean-Claude Van Damme: Behind Closed Doors. It screened on the UK’s ITV4 for 8 episodes, and detailed everything from his 50th birthday, to his return to the real-life kickboxing arena, to meeting his daughter’s new boyfriend – often excruciatingly so.
Whilst Van Damme’s career will never fully return to the heights scaled during its ‘80s and ‘90s boom period, his latter-day projects are at least receiving limited theatrical releases in selected territories rather than instantly finding their way into video store bargain bins. 2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration saw JCVD reteam with Dolph Lundgren for a significant return to form for the ailing sci-fi license, and a further follow-up in the shape of Universal Soldier: A New Dimension is due out in 2012.
In fact, 2012 is shaping up to be JCVD’s busiest period since this year ushered in the limited Stateside release of Assassination Games, his voice-acting debut as ‘Master Croc’ in Kung Fu Panda 2, and the belated October arrival of The Eagle Path – the first movie JCVD has written, directed, produced, and starred in.
And yes, although he was loathe to embrace his status as a post-prime action relic under the directorship of Stallone for 2010’s The Expendables, JCVD has confirmed his appearance in next year’s sequel, The Expendables 2. Will he do the splits?
Author: Toby McCasker