Back in the late 1980s, tucked away in the corner of the Las Vegas Convention Center during the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) Convention, a quiet, unassuming guy paced back and forth, anxious for people to come to his booth and ask for an autograph.
A makeshift sign, scrawled in magic marker at the low-budget Imperial Entertainment booth, announced that the man signing the autographs was a “World Kick-Boxing Champion.” He was featured on the poster for Black Eagle, the action film he starred in with Japanese martial arts maven Sho Kosugi. Yet few people stopped to shake his hand, ask him for his signature or even get a free poster.
Feeling bad about the lack of traffic to his makeshift abode, I approached the guy—who was about my height, and seemed an unlikely martial arts master—and offered my hand.
His handshake almost crushed a few of my digits.
“Pleeeze to meet you,” he said in what seemed to be a heavy French accent. “My name is Jean-Claude.”
Still grimacing from the hearty hello, I put my aching hand out for the Black Eagle poster he signed.
I asked him about his background, and he told me that he was, in fact, from Belgium and had done parts in other movies that were coming out soon.
“Dey awr bigger movies,” he said, “but this one has lots of good achion in et.”
I told him I would look forward to them and went on my merry way, occasionally looking back to the tiny Imperial Entertainment enclave, where Jean-Claude tried to stir up conversations with convention goers carrying bags of rolled posters, logo-emblazoned pens, promo VHS tapes and assorted tchotchkes. It was kind of sad.
True to my new best friend’s word, Jean-Claude Van Damme was, in fact, soon all around. I saw him star in Bloodsport about six months later, a primitive but exciting action yarn in which JCVD plays an American battling in an underground martial arts kumite tournament. I also caught him in the futuristic Cyborg, a sort of post-apocalyptic Enter the Dragon.
My new best friend certainly had the moves, kicking the crap out of pretty much everyone on screen with his lightning fast feet, slicing fists and high impact cocoa-butts.
But that heavy accent! And acting so wooden you could imagine termites circling while Jean-Claude struggled to deliver a line of English dialogue!
Was JCVD going to make it as an action star? I had serious doubts. But I wasn’t going to tell him that at the time.
Nor anyone else, apparently. He was gaining fans—not just in the US, but apparently around the world. He was cranking out the movies at a steady clip, and his accent or acting didn’t seem to matter. He became a brand action name in little time at all, with projects like Lionheart, Death Warrant, and Double Impact (playing two roles).
Audiences and producers began to take him seriously when his films, which did decently in theaters, became huge on home video and cable.
He was now bankable, so he was recruited for Roland Emmerich’s $23 million action sci-fier Universal Soldier playing alongside Dolph Lundgren. JCVD and Dolph were Vietnam War vet adversaries who got cyborg-ized and wake up in the future to continue their bone-crunching rivalry. Produced by Carolco, the company that gave us the Rambo series, the film was a hit and led to several sequels, three of which Van Damme was aboard.
The new notoriety brought Van Damme some fresher challenges. Drama rather than action was accented in Nowhere to Run, co-written by Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) and centering on the relationship between escaped con Jean-Claude and widowed mother of two Rosanna Arquette.
For his English-language debut, Hong Kong action specialist John Woo (The Killer) had Van Damme as his lead for a bloody reinterpretation of The Most Dangerous Game called Hard Target. This riveting actioner set in and around New Orleans was a high profile Universal Pictures release that was much buzzed-about. The movie essentially delivered the goods, although it had its violence toned down to get an “R”-rating.
Van Damme sought to corral more mainstream audiences by starring in two films directed by Peter Hyams. TimeCop, based on a comic book, posits the actor as a policeman who commandeers an experimental time machine in order to find out who is responsible for wife Mia Sara’s death. The film’s success spawned a Jean-Claude-less direct-to-video sequel. Also from Hyams is the enjoyably outrageous Sudden Death—a thriller set mostly in the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, where ex-fireman Van Damme must tackle baddie Powers Boothe, save his daughter and the Vice President of the United States, and play goal for the Pens during the Stanley Cup Finals. Yep, this “Die Hard in a Hockey Rink” is as zany, and as much over-the-top fun, as it sounds.
Van Damme has been cranking out movies at a steady clip for a long time, some solid (Maximum Risk), some awful (Street Fighter with Raul Julia, Double Team with Dennis Rodman and Mickey Rourke), and some downright bizarre.
Of the latter variety, 2008’s JCVD takes the cake, an introspective, meta-movie reflection on stardom in which “The Muscles from Brussels” plays himself, a world-weary has-been movie star dealing with a failed marriage, drug addiction, a custody battle, general malaise and, probably even worse, the thought of losing parts to Steven Segal. Back in his native Belgium, Van Damme finds himself involved in a real-life hostage situation.
Working with Mabrouk El Mechri, a young French director influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, the film shifts around in chronological order, offers the actor a long monologue directly addressing the camera, and features inventively shot action sequences. The film was heralded at film festivals, received strong reviews and marked the first time one of the actor’s films played in American theaters in nine years.
Going out on a limb seems to have pumped new blood into JCVD’s career. He worked with director Peter Hyams’ son, John, in Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which added horror to the mix and received the best reviews of any of the films in the series. He joined the all-star macho cast of The Expendables 2, played the plutonium tycoon villain with kickboxing skills who goes against Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Chuck Norris and, in the finale, series ringleader Sylvester Stallone.
But that ain’t all, folks. Van Damme has shown his comic side before, but not as much as in Welcome to the Jungle, a new film in which he plays a former special ops dude who oversees a group of office drones on a survival expedition in the jungle. Adam Brody plays the marketing company nerd who finds that his idea for toilet paper is stolen by a slimy coworker. The company owner orders all of the employees—which including hot-to-trot human resources gal Megan Boone and eccentric rabbit-loving lady Kristen Schaal—on the “wilderness seminar” to get in touch with their primitive instincts. Van Damme has a grand old time spoofing his macho screen persona as the survivor specialist running the expedition.
After a four-year absence from helming a movie, Peter Hyams returned behind the camera to deliver Enemies Closer, another part in which JCVD gets to chew scenery as a bad guy.
Here, he’s a tree-hugging French-Canadian drug kingpin with a weird blonde hairdo and a penchant for a vegetarian menu. He also happens to be the leader of a group of mercenaries attempting to track down a cache of heroin carried by a plane that crashed into a lake. Eventually, park ranger and ex-Navy SEAL Tom Everett Scott finds an unusual ally while facing off against Van Damme and his men.
Enemies Closer Is another step in the right direction for Van Damme, who apparently wants to show he’s more than just the English language-challenged macho man with the scissor kicks and expert bludgeoning abilities. He seems to be having the time of his life playing the outrageously oddball villain throughout the film.
While he may never compete for an Academy Award, the 53-year-old “Muscles from Brussels” seems to be sprouting in different directions.