Top 10 greatest Jean-Claude Van Damme movies
Bulging Belgian Jean-Claude Van Damme's career comes under the spotlight, as Duncan lists 10 of the action star's finest movies...
Back in the golden era of action cinema, otherwise known as the 80s, muscular heroes dominated the big screen and absolutely flooded the burgeoning straight-to-video market. While the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone had broken into the mainstream and became household names, there was no shortage of up and coming younger actors keen to follow in their footsteps.
I’ve never understood the criteria by which Hollywood decides which actors will become breakout cinematic stars, and if they do, for how long. As movie geeks, I’m sure we all have favourites that never quite achieved the success we wished for them – in the martial arts/action world alone, the list would be absolutely huge, with names like Michael Dudikoff, Richard Norton and David Bradley springing to mind from back in the day, as well as the more contemporary direct to video stars such as Michael Jai White and Scott Adkins, who still maintain the tradition of making solid action flicks for those of us who simply can’t get enough.
Back when I was at school, Schwarzenegger was the biggest star around, and I have clear memories of how popular he was, with his movies being a constant source of chatter in and around lessons. When I found Jean-Claude Van Damme, simply through a process of renting (or rather getting my Dad to, as I was still technically underage) every new action movie released on video, it was a personal discovery that made it seem even more special. I appreciate that must sound strange, but there was a certain triumph to taking my beloved copy of A.W.O.L into school and spreading the word, showing the best fight scenes to my class, like some kind of JCVD evangelist.
His quick ascension to global success came as no surprise to Van Damme’s fans, with his easy-going charm, vulnerability, charisma and karate skills pushing him to the fore of his field, and the movies I’ve picked below hopefully reflect the best of his work over several decades.
As a lifelong fan of Van Dammage, I’ll be curious to see what you make of the list, so head to the comments below if you agree/disagree, and feel free to share your own favourites.
10. Double Impact (1991)/Replicant (2001)
"Big surprise. Huuuge surprise."
Double Impact was the first chance I had to see Jean-Claude on the big screen, thankfully down to a combination of its UK release in cinemas and that, at the age of 16, was able to buy tickets for 18-certificate films. Directed by long time Van Damme collaborator, Sheldon Lettich, it was exciting, funny, violent and a real chance for JCVD to flex his acting chops. Last year, while waiting on a rain-soaked red carpet for The Expendables 2, I enthused about his work with friend and editor of ScreenGeek, Sam Faulkner, who had a particular soft spot for Double Impact and contributed the following:
"As a young kid getting into action flicks, JCVD always seemed to be a higher-intensity figure than the hyper-muscular, superhuman Stallone or Arnie. There was something that felt a little grittier about a martial arts kick to the head, like something the bigger kids should be watching. So naturally, adding two roles for the Muscles from Brussels to play in one film, giving his underrated comic delivery a chance to spar with itself, as polar opposite characters, made Double Impact leap to the top of my chart. It also features a few scenes that are overlooked in action cinema - in particular a frantic fight scene on a boat, trafficking bootlegged cars, that features double the kickassery."
Which brings me nicely to Replicant, for my money VD’s most underappreciated film, and one which allowed him to play two even more diverse characters under one roof – there’s notorious serial killer of mothers Van Damme and slightly special, puppy dog Van Damme, who’s cloned from the DNA of his murderous counterpart. Yes, it’s as insane as it sounds, but a great little movie under the helm of City On Fire master, Ringo Lam, and with added Michael Rooker.
Plus, if you watched both Double Impact and Replicant in one evening, it’d be four Van Dammes for the price of two - a veritable buy one get one free of roundhouse kicks to the face. And who could deny the appeal of that?
9. Kickboxer (1989)
"And why they were so piss at me?"
Kickboxer, when you think about it, is a lot like Karate Kid (or Part II to be more precise) only with more bloody violence and broken glass. A young, rookie fighter is trained by a wise old master, by some rather unconventional methods, in order to get some payback - though to be fair Mr Miyagi wasn’t an advocate of brutal revenge.
In this case, Van Dammage is out to avenge his brother, Eric, who’s been left paralysed after a rather Ivan Drago-esque encounter with vicious, concrete kicker Tong Po. Thankfully, the fight doesn’t damage Eric’s glorious permed mullet and moustache combo, so don’t fret too much. It has to be said that it’s bad luck to be Jean-Claude Van Damme’s brother, unless of course you’re Jean-Claude Van Damme playing your own brother, as chances are that bad things will happen to you – hell, even his friends have a habit of dying.
The drunk dance scene in the bar is still one the best moments in cinema - splits to impress the ladies, cracking tune (Feeling So Good Today by Beau Williams), drunken martial arts, bottom wiggling and a total lack of underwear in linen trousers - which becomes frighteningly apparent the more he, er, shakes.
Kickboxer also takes the action movie training montage to new heights by filling an entire third with fight training, which is like sheer crack to someone like me. Eighties training montages were a vital part of my youth, to the point that even now I get a little over excited if one appears in a modern movie. Thinking about it, it’s exactly the element that’s missing from The Expendables, which is something Stallone should address as soon as possible. Well, a montage and the lack of a power ballad.
Speaking of such things, the rather fine re-teaming of singer Stan Bush and composer Paul Hertzog (they’d both done the music for Bloodsport) provide the requisite tunes and score, which are still a great addition to any 80s lover's collection - if you can find them.
8. A.W.O.L: Absent Without Leave - aka Lionheart (1990)
It’s difficult to explain how much of an effect A.W.O.L had on my affinity for Van Damme, without contextualising. To many people, I’m sure, it’s just a film about a man earning money through underground fights, to help out the wife and child of his murdered brother, but in my mid-teens it was absolutely beloved.
While it may seem strange to judge an action icon's screen prowess by his hair, JC’s previous films as a lead hero had seen an assortment of bad partings and stylistic choices that made an incredible difference at such a young age, as to how cool he was. Oh yes indeed, in my shallow youthfulness I judged a leading man's status by a haircut, apparently, and in that respect A.W.O.L was a leap forward for JCVD.
Thankfully, the film as a whole also sealed my bond with him, as its more contemporary urban setting (compared with the likes of Bloodsport and Kickboxer), mixed with the 'underdog rises' plotline that I’d been raised on with the Rocky movies, made Lionheart an instant favourite of mine. I spent endless hours drawing images from it on my French exercise books, while defacing text books by adding, Attila, the main villain's features to anyone suitable (sideburns, sunglasses, a ponytail and a speech bubble which simply said “You!” in case you were wondering.)
A.W.O.L might not seem terribly original now, with its power ballads and “I don’t know whether to fight you, or fuck you” dialogue, but the execution and simplicity of it all still make for a fine slice of entertainment, and the fight scenes still rank amongst my most watched from that era – it’s the martial arts equivalent of Rocky, and I simply can’t criticise it, even after all these years.
7. JCVD (2008)
“This movie is for me.”
One of the titular star's most critically acclaimed movies to date, JCVD came left of centre at a time when the general public had chosen to simply write Van Damme off as capable of nothing more than straight to video-action-movies. To the film's credit - even to a loyal fan - it was still a shock to the system, with its rather depressing depiction of one man trapped inside the notion of celebrity, while destined to make the same kind of movie ad infinitum for the rest of his career.
An experience improved by not knowing anything about the film’s content, so I won’t go into detail (and you should probably stop reading now if you still haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it), but I can’t not mention the monologue, simply titled ‘assessment of my life’ on the DVD chapter menu. It’s a moment of post-modern beauty, and is so utterly compelling and heart breaking, with its absolute honesty, that I found myself shaken to tears.
It’s delivered in such a unique and profound manner, which I certainly wasn’t prepared for, and is made all the more powerful when delivered by a man who is subjected to hero worship and held up to be an infallible icon – which is utterly at the core of what Van Damme is so torn up about during his speech. It’s a sublime moment in a great film, and thoroughly worth a watch if you’ve been undecided up to this point.
In an interview I read post JCVD, the man himself stated that he’d love to film a three-hour monologue, but wasn’t sure anyone would be up to the challenge, or that it would have any chance of release due its nature, but I can tell you now that I would happily indulge for that length of time - and I even have a camera…
6. The Expendables 2 (2012)
"I like… symbol."
The most recent entry, but one which had to be added and would feature far higher were Van Damme’s screen time longer. That said, it’s the case with The Expendables 2 that a little goes a long way, and the quality of his performance marks it easily amongst his best.
While I remain a fan of the first Expendables, the addition of JC as the subtly named Vilain really did complete my dream line up of 80s action heroes. His appearance, combined with the humour and gloriously obscene amounts of carnage (the opening sequence has to be one of the greatest starts to an action movie yet) made The Expendables 2 supersede everything that was great about the first entry.
It was a real thrill to see him back on the big screen again, and there was a real sense of dedication to the role, as he makes the most of every line and every action, savouring the moment that would see audiences cheer his first appearance in the film. As I stated in my review of EX2, I grew up at a time when action movie sequels went straight to video, so the mere fact that the franchise has given not just Van Damme, but stars like Lundgren and Norris a chance to shine on cinema screens once more, makes the film even more of a special event.
Unsurprisingly then, for an action junkie like myself, when the final confrontation between Stallone and JVCD finally happens, it felt like Christmas day as a kid again. I’d waited most of my life to see the two of them face off, and the scene plays out to perfection, resulting in one of my favourite fights ever committed to celluloid, which I think says it all.
5. Sudden Death (1995)
"I’m having a real bad day.”
Or in short, Van Damme’s Die Hard.
If Steven Seagal had Under Siege, Wesley Snipes had Passenger 57 and Kurt Russell had Executive Decision, then it was Van Damme’s second collaboration with director Peter Hyams that resulted in arguably his most accessible and mainstream movie to date. It’s a classic ‘everyman versus terrorists’ scenario, but executed with aplomb and filled with a great sense of scale (helped in no small part by Hyams' skill as a director of photography) and memorable moments.
It’s also surprisingly brutal, setting up VD’s character with the death of a child, followed by the murder of an old lady, mixed with various executions and some over-the-top violence. Chief amongst these is a fight scene that warrants Sudden Death’s inclusion on this list alone, and that’s the mascot punch up. The scene plays out like an adult cartoon, as Van Damme’s Darren McCord endlessly kicks and punches a giant, furry mascot in the head as it throttles and hurls him around a kitchen. The comical nature of the visuals are matched by the inclusion of every kitchen threat conceivable – deep fat fryers, meat cleavers, fans, and so on - which only heighten the bizarre fun of it all. It’s a slight shame that my wife easily spotted the body double, but that almost adds to the charm.
Also of note are the 90s moppet hair that adorned every male child actor back then (see the George Clooney starrer, One Fine Day, for the best/worst example), an ineffectual and explode-y SWAT team, a cracking John Debney score and Powers Boothe on excellent, scenery chewing, bad guy duties.
4. Hard Target (1993)
"Now take your big stick and your boyfriend and find a bus to catch.”
The universal appeal of Jean Claude Van Damme has meant that he's been chosen by quite a few directors making their first English language feature film, especially from the far east. It's a great accolade to have, especially when one of those directors happens to be the legendary John Woo, whose Hong Kong action movies are still amongst some of the greatest ever made - if you've only experienced his mixed Hollywood output, such as Face/Off or Broken Arrow, then you need to track down a copy of Hard Boiled right now.
Talking of Hard Boiled, it's no coincidence that Hard Target borrows some of that film's iconic encounters, as Woo rightly assumed that most western audiences would be unlikely to notice, but thankfully the two films remain quite different. Target has a great central concept that involves rich people paying the evil Lance Henriksen for the privilege of hunting live prey, who it transpires are made up of the homeless of New Orleans.
When the lovely (and underappreciated) Yancy Butler rolls into town looking for her absent father, she recruits the Muscles from Brussels to help out, with events naturally leading to a few faces being smashed for good measure. The fight choreography is just superb, with Woo’s trademark slo-mo allowing every bone crunching, window smashing delight to be seen in full detail, making me appreciate even more how well action scenes used to be shot before editing took the place of skilful coordination and filming.
I’m still desperately awaiting a director's/uncut version of Hard Target, as a quick YouTube search will reveal exactly how much of the violence and action was removed.
The film is also enhanced, like any great action flick (and so many entries on this list), by its villain - in this case the double delight of Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo, who’s in ear slicing, eyeball shooting mode. Their combined screen presence and physical imposition make for some superb and well-matched adversaries for VD’s fantastically named Chance Boudreaux, though Uncle Douvee (see: duvet) also deserves a name check.
I’d also be remiss to remark on Boudreaux’s rather supreme, lank mullet, truly the hairstyle of the gods, and sported years ahead of Nicolas Cage in Con Air. It’s just glorious.
3. Timecop (1994)
"I’m still kicking, I must be on Broadway.”
Any self-respecting action star should, at some point in their career, have a blockbuster sci-fi feature under their belt. The 90s saw a flood of such movies, thanks to the swift advancement of VFX over the previous decade, with Schwarzenegger's Total Recall, Stallone's Demolition Man, Willis' Fifth Element as well as less high profile (but fondly remembered) films like Christopher Lambert's Fortress, Ray Liotta's No Escape and so on - even Olivier Gruner had Nemesis. It will come as no surprise that I'm still waiting for Statham to add one to his roster, as The One was a supporting role, and I'm amazed he wasn't chosen to star in the remake of Total Recall as a replacement Arnie.
We were truly spoilt for big, fun sci-fi movies back in the 90s, and it's a great shame that so few seem to cross the box office anymore, which is reason enough to be grateful that Lockout was made.
Timecop marked the first of a directorial run of four movies I love by Peter Hyams, as he went straight on to a second Van Damme vehicle with Sudden Death (see above), followed by the underrated greatness of The Relic (Tom Sizemore as heroic yet bitter, leading man, gory monster treats, the most stupid SWAT team and the best performance by a dog ever - take that, The Artist) and finishing with Arnie tearjerker End Of Days.
For me, Timecop is a success, as it throws caution to the wind and indulges in multiple genres all at once. There’s the tragic romance, the sci-fi hokum which includes mixing past with present and future (sometimes all at once), martial arts action, gun violence, great sets, some nice effects and Ron Silver's evil beard – what more could a growing boy want? As a B-movie delight, I just can’t recommend it enough; even typing this has made me want to watch it again.
It also stuck to the glorious convention that 90s sci-fi always adhered to, and that was the inclusion of gratuitous boobs. I’m looking at you in particular, Demolition Man.
It looks like a reunion is on the cards this year too, as IMDb states that both Hyams and Van Damme are working on Enemies Closer, which makes sense as Hyams' son, John, has been responsible for the recent/upcoming Universal Soldier sequels.
2. Universal Soldier (1992)
"The food is good."
When Universal Soldier was released I almost wept with joy. Thanks to Van Damme's productivity in the previous few years, I was a full-blown fan by the time it appeared on the big screen and that, coupled with my love of Dolph Lundgren after a solid run from Rocky IV to Showdown In Little Tokyo, meant I was one excited geek, and Universal Soldier did not disappoint.
What you have to remember at the time is that cinematic releases from my favourite DTV action stars were starting to become rarer; while they had solid fan bases from video rentals, most films, especially Van Damme's, involved nothing more budget heavy than bullets and fists. Arnold Schwarzenegger had achieved mainstream success during the previous decade by making some of the most violent films ever, yet he’d already started on the slippery slope to more child-friendly fare with Kindergarten Cop. Then Terminator 2 secured him the biggest pay cheque of his career, for making a less bloody sequel.
Along came Universal Soldier, an action movie with a budget and buckets of blood, providing me with an 18 certificate movie which I was finally old enough to see at the cinema, as well as featuring sci-fi elements and two of my favourite action heroes. It's actually very difficult to express how much that all meant, but growing up with the Lethal Weapons, Predators and Terminators on video, unable to see them at the flicks, then finally being able to pass for 18 only to find that all the films being released in the early to mid-90s seemed to soften, even if they were part of a franchise, was terribly disappointing (one reason to be grateful for Alien 3).
I should probably state for the record again that real life violence holds absolutely no appeal for me, but I was raised in the 80s, when explosive gore was the cinematic equivalent of fireworks in action movies, and a harmless, yet gross way of being entertained. I know I'm not alone - just look at the outrage caused by Chuck Norris when it looked like The Expendables 2 was going to be toned down - it's cathartic to have violent, adult entertainment with a sense of fun, and that's exactly what Universal Soldier is.
It marked the beginning of the ascent for the mighty Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin combo, as they showed their love of B-grade science fiction (dead soldiers brought back to life to fight!) with an assured hand at both carnage and comedy. Van Damme shines as a lethal innocent, a side to his acting that really helped to set him apart from the ever invulnerable likes of Seagal and Schwarzenegger. There's a genuinely sweet sense of naivety to Luc Deveraux, marked with the existential tragedy of being a man out of his own time, which makes his plight even more compelling, especially knowing that he was killed for trying to do the right thing. I hold that it's the same quality that makes Jet Li so great in the likes of Unleashed, but it’s a role that really helped to humanise and differentiate Van Damme from the crowd.
I'd be remiss not to mention the mighty Lundgren, too, as deranged Andrew Scott (a man, it seems, who just won't stay dead), who fills the running time with endless quotes that I'm still partial to impersonating, from "Do you hear me?" to "It's empty!" It's Dolph's greatest performance, and the sheer mania, combined with his penchant for necklaces made of body parts, is just superb.
I couldn't award Universal Soldier top place as fellow Uni-Sol, Dolph Lundgren, eats up the scenery and steals every scene he's in, leaving Van Damme the straight, if comical at times part, making it much more of two hander.
1. Bloodsport (1988)
"If I can grab it before you close your hand, I get the girl."
After both limited screen time and dialogue in the glorious 80s treat that is No Retreat, No Surrender, in which he'd played the lead villain, Bloodsport marked Van Damme's breakthrough as both leading man and straight-to-video star. The words ‘based on a true story' always make me wince, but here it proves to be a great excuse to watch endless bouts of fighting, wrapped in the joyous conventions that epitomised 80s action. It delivers power ballads courtesy of the great Stan Bush yet again, has revenge, flashbacks, seeing an enemy reflected in a window behind only for him to disappear on turning round, a gratuitous chase and, of course, a training montage.
It would also showcase a versatility to JCVD's heroic portrayal of real life martial artist, Frank Dux (allegations have since been made against Dux's background, and claims that the Kumite even existed, though it resulted in Bloodsport being made, so I'm happy), who is beaten, tortured and even blinded throughout the course of the film, bringing an early sense of charm and likeability to a role that could so easily have been filled with arrogance. More importantly, Van Damme gives Dux a sense of vulnerability, which is still a rarity in action movies.
Bloodsport's strength as an action film flows from its brutality and the extremely well shot fight scenes, with a real (and actual) sense of contact in most fights. It's always more convincing getting martial artists to fight on screen and have the odd line to say, rather than vice versa, when every precaution is made to keep actors several feet apart. The other benefit to casting fighters is that the range of styles demonstrated help to keep the action scenes interesting, even though you have no idea who you're actually watching (apart from Paco, he rules).
Even now, each time I watch the end fight between Dux and Chong Li (played to terrifying perfection by the great, pec bouncing Bolo Yeung) at the point where the blind flashback scene happens, I get goosebumps - it's like an involuntary reaction to awesome blind ninja skills, but credit is also due to Paul Hertzog's cracking score. That same scene also features one of JCVD's most epic and renowned blood curdling screams, though if I remember correctly from timing them as a teenager, Kickboxer wins for longevity.
It was the last VHS tape I watched before decommissioning my video player, and is a film I know more or less word for word after endless screenings as a teenager and beyond, so it holds a very special place for me and therefore still, I think, remains the greatest of his films.
Death Warrant - So very close to making the top ten, but just edged out. It was an early example of Van Damme stretching dramatic content over action, but still contains some great fight scenes, especially the final encounter with the terrifying Patrick Kilpatrick. Also features underappreciated 80s lovely, Cynthia Gibb (hooray for Youngblood and Short Circuit 2).
No Retreat, No Surrender - Van Damme plays a rotter again, in one of the most 80s movies ever made.
Streetfighter - I can't help but love the movie, despite the consistent wonkiness of every aspect of production - the ever changing blond hair dye, the lack of any real visual effects (Ryu's fireball being more of a spark), Blanka and Kylie. Sadly, it also marked the swansong of Raul Julia.
Double Team - JCVD teams up with former professional basketball player, Dennis Rodman, in a gloriously bonkers slice of sci-fi hokum, notable for an appearance by Mickey Rourke during his wilderness years, and a tiger.
Maximum Risk - JCVD doesn't do enough fighting for my liking, but does get to diddle Species star Natasha Henstridge, so good on him. It marked Ringo Lam's American directorial debut, continuing Van Damme's relationship with Hong Kong action directors, but wasn't a patch on Lam's superb City On Fire, the infamous ‘inspiration' for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.
The Quest - Good fun and Jonkers' directorial debut, yet despite trying to emulate the best parts of Bloodsport, and with Roger Moore and the mighty James Remar in the cast, never quite manages the same level of excitement.
Nowhere To Run - A rare cinematic release that proved a little too mainstream for me, with its relatively brief action scenes and emphasis on drama.
Universal Soldier: Regeneration - A fairly solid new oeuvre into the action franchise, but not enough Dolph or Van Damme for my liking. I've yet to see the latest entry, but apparently it's stomach churningly vicious.
Cyborg - I never could quite love Cyborg, despite trying multiple times over the years. It does have one image that always stuck in my mind, and it's the splits in the archway, while poised waiting to attack a bad guy – that scene was a highlight.
Until Death - Washed up cop, dead partner, black police chief, gratuitous slo-mo, random shifty looking guy a bar. It's a strange, reoccurring problem with DTV action movies that the plot and editing seem almost surreal at times, when the narrative should be the easiest element to keep simple. His wife is terrible. Jean Claude does burned-out junkie scarily well though, which is a little heart breaking.
The Shepherd - I was quite enjoying this, one drunken night, but the more sober people in the room made me take it off. Bah.
Black Eagle - More early villainy by the man, but not much in the way of screen time sadly.
Wake Of Death, Inferno, Derailed, In Hell, Second In Command, Legionnaire.
Universal Soldier: The Return - There had already been an unofficial sequel to Universal Soldier, so when Van Damme agreed to come back to the franchise for an official one, my hopes were high - they were not met. It's just about passable when really drunk, but may cause sobriety.
Knock Off - Despite my soft spot for Double Team, directed by Tsui Hark the year before, Knock Off was a disjointed jumpy mess which I don't have fond memories of.
The Order - I have seen it. I can't remember a thing and even Charlton Heston isn't ringing any bells.
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