Jean-Claude Van Damme is probably the only person laying claim to the nickname “The Muscles from Brussels.” I’m assuming that this is largely because Belgians are either frail or doughy, but it’s also in no small part due to the fact that Van Damme is downright muscle-y.
However, as many action stars used their muscles and wraparound sunglasses as a crutch for weak acting, Van Damme quickly made the leap from martial arts star to legit action actor in a manner that Steven Segal can only dream of. In honor of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning‘s release on Blu-RayTM and DVD, here are his seven best films. Your results may vary.
Perhaps the most durable film of JCVD’s catalog, Bloodsport is a great example of what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Taking some creative liberties with the life story of Frank Dux, the producers let us into the world of underground fighting known as the kumite, in which seedy Asians bet on a (wait for it) Bloodsport where fighters as diverse as those in a video game hammer on each other for sport and glory.
It’s impossible to ignore the parallels between the film and the video game Street Fighter, indicating that the reach of Bloodsport was such that it transcended film and managed to infiltrate other aspects of pop culture.
Before Roland Emmerich was going over the top with films like Independence Day, he was cutting his teeth in the action genre with (slightly) less fanfare such as Universal Soldier, which featured futuristic soldiers having at each other as reanimated versions of their Vietnam War-era selves.
Big Bad Dolph Lundgren fashions a necklace made out of ears, and if that doesn’t do it for you, the ambitious scene set upon the Hoover Dam gives us a fascinating glimpse of what’s to come from Mr. Emmerich.
Upon learning that Jean-Claude Van Damme is credited as playing “JCVD,” it’s clear that this won’t be a straight up documentary on the action star, but rather a truth-bending interpretation of the action star’s life, in which he plays a struggling, broke actor that is down on his luck and weathered.
It doesn’t always achieve its lofty high-concept ambitions, but it’s a fascinating watch nonetheless to see JCVD go from ass-kicker to uber-vulnerable.
If you can get past the mullet (a ginormous “if”) and get past the denim on denim on denim (probably with lots of turquoise and silver underneath it), you can get to the heart of a really great action film starring an in-his-prime Van Damme directed by an up-and-coming John Woo.
This is Woo at his finest, before he got all cliché and heavy-handed with his imagery and symbolism. It’s bows and arrows and motorcycles and explosions all done in a deft fashion that, for its time, was pushing the boundaries of stale action fare.
While few would argue this is a “good” film, it’s a fascinating piece of JCVD’s career, as it crosses the same spot on his career arc that Bloodsport does, though in a baroque and stale way. So why watch it unless you want to run through that academic exercise?
Because it’s the archetypical bad video game film that managed to drag some decent talent down with it, namely Raul Julia (sadly, his last film) and Van Damme. Van Damme plays the protagonist Guile, and beyond that, the plot is largely incidental as the film just tosses out reference points to the video game in the hope that will be enough.
It’s not, but it’s incredibly fun and interesting to watch the film try so damn hard.
Sure, JCVD is uncredited here as a spectator during a breakdance scene, but it’s amazing to watch this campy 1984 breakdancing film knowing that somewhere, an undiscovered Jean Claude Van Damme was wandering around the set, speaking with a thick Belgian accent, and wondering if it would be ok if he took another sandwich from the craft services truck.
Lesson 1: Play to your star’s strengths. Van Damme was rightfully known for and discovered for his prowess as a martial artist, and between this film and Bloodsport, that couldn’t be more clear in the upward trajectory of his career. Any film that has the protagonist dipping his hands in resin and glass is going to have first crack at the number one spot, and this is no exception. In fact, it’s probably the rule.
The name says it all. Kickboxer. We see JCVD kick ass the way it was meant to be kicked, and that’s his legacy.