The Best of Jean-Claude Van Damme
Pound of Flesh is currently filming in China, offering a new action backdrop for genre legend Jean-Claude Van Damme. The film is directed by Ernie Barbarash (Assassination Games, Six Bullets) and co-stars include Darren Shahlavi (Ip Man 2) and William B. Davis (The X-Files). What’s more, the fights and action are handled by stunt veteran John Salvitti (Flash Point, Special ID). It’s produced by Kirk Shaw, Henry Luk, JJ Dubois and Mike Leeder. With this solid team on board and an interesting new backdrop to play to (not to mention Barbarash’s steer towards gritty, edgier themes) this will definitely be one to watch out for. Alongside this and other new home ent releases, including Enemies Closer and Welcome to the Jungle, there’s a nice selection of new Van Damme titles which can only be good news for fans.
I’ve been a huge Van Damme fan from a very young age and would largely attribute this influence to my lifelong passion for action cinema and Martial Arts as a whole. And strangely, I don't think I've ever written a piece on him. How's that possible?
Having read a lot of ‘top 10’ style lists and not always agreeing with the format, here’s a summary of my personal favourite Van Damme films and the influence I feel they still hold today. I have to point out they may not all be his ‘best’ in every fan’s eyes, but these are films which made a big impact on me and which show him at his best. And to round off the top 10, I’ve listed other titles I really like underneath. These may include films which aren’t strictly JCVD vehicles (eg The Expendables 2, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) due to the size of his role, but still deliver a serious helicopter kick to the face! Enjoy!
My personal top 10:
10. The Quest (1996)
Van Damme’s directorial debut is a throwback to the Bloodsport tournament movie days – sadly a little too late and out of trend, perhaps, for a mainstream audience of the mid 1990’s. This may explain why it didn’t get the response it deserved upon theatrical release. Still, it was a big deal for anyone who grew up with these fight films on video in the years before. It’s not quite on the same level as Bloodsport or Kickboxer but remains a lavish, hugely ambitious Martial Arts epic with stunning locations, great fights, a memorable score and supporting roles from the likes of James Remar and Roger Moore.
“I don’t know about you, Chris, but I plan on seeing Times Square again!”
9. Lionheart (1990)
Also known as AWOL, the film acheievd a great balance between the action and drama as Van Damme played a deserter in the Foreign Legion who travels to America when he finds out his brother has been murdered. He is subsequently forced to fight in an illegal underground competition to provide for his sister-in-law and her daughter. JC gives one of his best early performances and handles the grittier, dramatic subject well. The film also features memorable fights and notable characters like Attila and Moustafa as just some of the opponents.
“The whole bet is on Atilla” ... “Wrong bet!”
8. Double Impact (1991)
In this Van Damme favourite, The Muscles From Brussels plays a dual role as twins separated at birth when their parents were brutally murdered by members of a Hong Kong criminal cartel. 25 years later the pair are re-united to avenge their parent's death. Combining the violence, comedy, charm and face-kicking action JC was becoming well known for, this film brought many different elements to the table and made a well-rounded, thoroughly entertaining movie. The simultaneous henchman fight scenes with each twin taking on Bolo Yeung and Peter Malota are literally etched into my memory!
“Because of my big legs and karate, I can do the splits no problem!”
7. JCVD (2008)
In his most critically acclaimed role and film to date, Van Damme plays a dramatised version of himself as a struggling actor fighting bankruptcy and caught in the middle of a custody battle to win back his daughter. To make matters worse, he becomes embroiled in a bank robbery led by a gang of violent criminals. Framed for the robbery and murder of innocent hostages, he must win the approval of the crowd and police if he is to survive and escape. Playing more like an arthouse movie and very different project for Van Damme, the film was incredibly brave and showed Van Damme pouring his heart and soul on screen and revealing a side few critics had seen before.
“You made my dream come true. I asked for it. I promised you something in return and I haven't delivered yet”
6. Timecop (1994)
One of his most commercial hits and a regular favourite among fans. Timecop is a futuristic sci-fi actioner set in the year 2004(!) where time travel is a reality and a new breed of crime has now emerged. It is now possible to alter history and so the Time Enforcement Commission has ruled no one can go back in time. However, someone has broken the law and JC’s Timecop must prevent a change in history and the murder of his wife! With high production values, a solid sci-fi story and excellent action, all delivered in style by veteran director Peter Hyams, this became Van Damme’s most commercially successful film (and remains so to this day) which carried his credentials over to a mainstream audience.
“I'm still kicking! I must be on Broadway!”
5. Wake of Death (2004)
In one of his grittiest, toughest and darkest projects, JCVD plays an ex-mob enforcer who takes on the Triads when his wife becomes collateral damage during a kidnapping. More of an action drama than wall-to-wall action piece, the film is extremely sombre, moody and portrays one of JC’s most tortured characters to date. The action is nasty and realistic, with the story unfolding like a graphic novel utilising rich imagery, violence, music, emotion and sparse dialogue. It was also great to see Hong Kong star Simon Yam playing the ruthless Triad boss.
“San Quan! I’m coming for you!”
4. Universal Soldier (1992)
In one of Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren’s first big theatrical hits, this original movie remains a fan favourite and genre landmark to this day, spawning several sequels later. Dead soldiers are reanimated as part of a secret military project and two “UniSols” continue their feud in a new, modern setting - with one on a psychotic rampage and the other trying to stop him. While still capturing the familiar ingredients of both stars, it repositioned both leads in big theatrical territory and let them showcase strong performances and trademark physicality against a big budget sci-fi backdrop. This was also the first Van Damme movie I saw with my Dad and, surpisingly, even he enjoyed it, despite not being a huge action fan.
“You’re discharged... Sarge!”
3. Hard Target (1993)
Hong Kong master John Woo’s arrival in Hollywood was marked by this full-throttle action spectacle and arguably remains his strongest movie outside his native HK. It was also the first major Hollywood film made by a Chinese director, so culturally significant and influential while paving the way for a new breed of action filmmaker. Van Damme’s merchant seaman saves a young woman from a gang of thugs in New Orleans and, upon agreeing to locate her missing father, finds the old man fell victim to a band of criminals who run ‘games’ for wealthy citizens to hunt the homeless. With Woo’s signature slow-mo action combining stylish gunplay and Martial Arts, Van Damme takes on Lance Henriksen and his crew in a blistering display of action which stills obliterates the CGI schlock dominating the market today.
“Now take your pig-stick and your boyfriend... and find a bus to catch.”
2. Bloodsport (1988)
What can we say? The original Bloodsport remains a cult favourite to this day and the film which defined Van Damme as a bright new Martial Arts star. In the exotic tournament setting, JC plays the real-life Frank Dux competing in the Kumite - a secret competition for fighters from all over the world. The film remains not only a cornerstone of the Martial Arts genre, and loved as such, but offered the perfect showcase for the young Van Damme and his impressive physical abilities and trademarks, such as the helicopter kick and splits. This is truly a project tailored to its best asset. Through a memorable series of battles, Van Damme showed undeniable talent as a budding star to watch.
“Brick not hit back!”
1. Kickboxer (1989)
Now this is my all-time favourite Van Damme movie. Much like Bloodsport, it remains a classic tournament film showcasing his incredible atheltic abilities and, in many ways, sits comfortably alongside this earlier movie released just a year before. But, for me, the differentiator is Kickboxer's tough exterior and decidedly adult content. If Bloodsport was the young, fresh faced recruit, Kickboxer was the hardened, battle scarred big brother. In my view, it also built on the elements laid down by Bloodsport and delivered them in much better and stronger doses - the character's overwhelming struggle, the barbaric training scenes, the relentless fights, the fear of an unbeatable antagonist and so much more. Kickboxer is not simply a timeless masterpiece of the genre, but it also shows Van Damme at the top of his game. This is physical action cinema at it's most awesome.
But if you’re a die-hard fan like me, 10 isn’t really enough - is it? Here are some other Van Damme movies I love. Maybe they don’t rank absolute top of the list but I've found there's always something to enjoy. See what you think...
No Retreat, No Surrender (1985) A classic, kitsch 80’s cheesefest with Van Damme playing the feared villain, Ivan the Russian. Immensely quotable and endlessly fun.
Replicant (2001) Very nearly made it into my top 10. A hugely underrated action drama from Hong Kong director Ringo Lam, with Van Damme again playing dual roles and turning in great performances.
Sudden Death (1995) Sometimes referred to as Die Hard in an ice rink. The likeness is obvious, but it's still a solid Van Damme action vehicle with a great villainous role for Power Boothe.
Maximum Risk (1996) Quality Hong Kong style action and Van Damme’s first collaboration with action maestro Ringo Lam. Top tier stunts and action on display here.
Death Warrant (1990) Van Damme is a cop who goes undercover in prison and fights to expose corruption and murder. A little gem from his early career and takes him to the less frequented location of a claustrophobic prison (revisited later for In Hell).
The Expendables 2 (2012) Van Damme plays the arch nemesis in this star-studded action packed sequel. It was fantastic to see him back on the big screen and going toe-to-toe with Sylvester Stallone.
Six Bullets (2012) Another refreshingly dark, moody action drama from director Ernie Barbarash with a strong story, solid performances and brutal action.
Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) Director John Hyams reinvigorated the franchise and dragged it in a totally new direction in a one location, claustrophobic action thriller. Plus, it was great to see Van Damme and Lundgren back in the mix.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning Refreshing the franchise yet again, this sequel played out like a slow burning action-horror with Scott Adkins in the lead and unsettling, memorable performances from Van Damme and Lundgren.
With Pound of Flesh filming and more on the way soon, long may the JCVD legacy continue…