The cult which has surrounded the 'Little Dragon' since his untimely death in 1973 sometimes obscures the work of others who have followed in his wake and helped to spread the influence of martial arts worldwide. Whilst it's true that no-one has ever managed to equal the success and sheer influence of the incredible talent that was Bruce Lee – [Jackie Chan, although a huge star in the Far East, only recently developed a reasonable fan base in the West; likewise with Jet Li] – one man came very close to replicating Lee's superstar status in the English-speaking world and this article examines the enigma that is Jean-Claude Van Damme.
From Ballet to 'Bloodsport'.
Jean-Claude Van Damme – real name Jean-Claude Van Varenburg – was born just outside Brussels, Belgium, in 1960. [Hardly a hotbed of potential movie stars. Have you ever been to Brussels? It's like God's waiting room.]
Taking up Shotokan karate at the age of 11, the athletic young Varenburg achieved the coveted black belt status in his late teens; by which time the previously skinny youth had also become heavily involved in weight-training; developing an outstanding physique and winning the 'Mr.Belgium' bodybuilding title. Jean-Claude also took up ballet, in order to improve his martial arts flexibility and later described the rigours of ballet training as 'far more intense than that of any sport he'd encountered'.
The combination of his success in international karate and kickboxing tournaments and in bodybuilding contests, led Jean-Claude to open his own gym in Brussels, at the tender age of 18. A comfortable living beckoned as a martial arts / fitness instructor but Van Varenburg had loftier ambitions. Secretly, he harboured dreams of becoming a movie star; something way beyond the hopes, or even comprehensions, of most of his peers and family in sleepy Belgium. However, the ambitious Jean-Claude appreciated that he had transformed himself from a nerdy youth into a successful athlete and respected business owner; why not take this drive for success and recognition to the next level and conquer Hollywood?
Even though he'd married, aged 20, Van Varenburg left his young wife behind, in order to move to America in the early 1980's and pursue his acting ambitions. Jean-Claude had the impressively muscled physique and handsome face required of a 'leading man' / action movie star. What he unfortunately lacked was both acting experience and ability and his stilted command of the English language didn't help. Hollywood was overflowing with aspiring young 'talent' and the novice Van Varenburg – although enthusiastic in his auditions - managed to make a rocking horse look less wooden in comparison.
After years of struggling to get anyone to take him seriously as an actor and having to sleep rough because he couldn't even afford to rent a room, the newly renamed Jean-Claude Van Damme finally made a medium-sized impact, in the 1985 film 'No Retreat, No Surrender'; a typical post-Bruce Lee martial arts movie, reminiscent in style and theme to the 'Karate Kid' series; wherein a young bullied teenager learns martial arts and overcomes his bigger, stronger adversaries; including Van Damme as a bullying Russian kick-boxer. [A role he pretty much reprised in the Sho Kusogi vehicle 'Black Eagle'.]
A brief second marriage ensued for Jean-Claude and was immediately followed by his third, [.] barely a year later to Gladys Portugues, the woman who would eventually provide the stability and 'grounding' in Van Damme's increasingly tempestuous personal life.
Jean-Claude struggled to find roles which didn't involve him being a stereotypical Russian thug – popular in American movies of the period and reflective of the paranoid anti-Communism theme which ran through celluloid Hollywood – and it wasn't until 1988 that Van Damme's persistence was finally rewarded with his first starring role.
'Bloodsport' has since become a cult classic amongst martial arts movie fans and – supposedly – is based upon the real-life story of Frank Dux, although much scorn has since been poured upon Dux's various claims; culminating in an ignominious assault upon Dux by martial artist Zane Frasier, in the early 1990's, when he attempted to expose Dux as a fraud.
Regardless, it made for a good movie script at the time; the tale of a young French boy, trained in the USA by a Japanese ninjitsu master for many years, until he elects to test his martial skills against the deadliest opponents around, in an illegal 'underground' fighting contest in Hong Kong.
The well-staged fight scenes went down a treat with the movie-goers, who loved the contrast of the different styles of martial arts portrayed in the film competing against each other. [Something soon to be seen for real in the emergent UFC.]
The climax was an enjoyably over-the-top battle between Van Damme and Bolo Yeung – [of 'Enter The Dragon' fame] – and set the template for a Van Damme action scene for years to come, with its stylised high-kicking, grimaces, over-the-top 'staggers' – when on the receiving end of blows - and balletic grace in attack.
A ridiculous sci-fi plot and stiff-as-a-board acting were to the fore in Van Damme's next low-budget effort 'Cyborg', in which he played a monosyllabic mercenary, escorting a half-human half-robot cyborg across post-Apocalyptic America.
It was the calm before the storm, as his next venture would explode Jean-Claude into the public's consciousness and turn him into a bona-fide international movie star and, for the next few years, Van Damme would do little wrong in the eyes of ardent action-movie followers.
The Sweet Smell of Success. [Otherwise known as 'snorting'.]
1989's 'Kickboxer' was the vehicle which propelled Jean-Claude to the forefront of the world's martial arts movie stars. 'The Muscles From Brussels' as he became affectionately known, was given ample opportunity to display his toned physique and supple athleticism as he spectacularly kicked his way through this tale of a young man seeking to avenge his brother's paralysis, caused by the fearsome Thai Boxer Tong Po.
Probably more than the actual fight scenes themselves though; it was the primitive brutality of the training sequences which caught the imagination of cinema-goers. [Although this was the movie which definitively proved that white men can't dance.]
Jean-Claude's lack of actual acting ability was more than compensated by his undeniable on-screen charisma. He was an extremely likeable star; particularly loved by young female fans, a fact which would be exploited over the years via many gratuitous nude scenes, featuring JCVD'S pert butt. [Wrote the heterosexual author.]
'A.W.O.L.' ['Absent Without Leave', aka 'Lionheart',] featured an abundance of the balletic multiple-head-kick fight scenes fans were beginning to associate with Van Damme. He played a French Foreign Legionnaire hunting down his brother's killer, in America and becoming embroiled in illegal bare-fist fighting along the way.
Jean-Claude's next movie 'Death Warrant' was 'darker', as he played an undercover cop placed inside a violent prison in order to discover why the inmates were mysteriously dying, whilst 'Double Impact' provided his growing legion of fans with 'two Van Damme's for the price of one', as he played twin brothers seeking revenge against the men who killed their parents. [Featuring the most clichéd of plots; more ham than on a pig farm and Bolo Yeung again as the villain. Well, I guess if they could have one Van Damme with Brylcreem and one without, so that the viewers could differentiate between the 'twins'; they may as well stick Bolo back into the mix, nobody will notice...except Han, who'd been missing his favourite bodyguard ever since 'Enter the Dragon'.]
Then came the box-office blockbuster Jean-Claude had been praying for; 'Universal Soldier', co-starring the equally muscular – and physically more imposing - martial artist Dolph Lundgren.
Van Damme and Lundgren are two soldiers who, after being killed in battle, are brought back to life via state-of-the-art [movie] technology. Now half-human half-zombie [.] they become a new breed of 'super-soldier', virtually invincible, until things start going terribly wrong when Lundgren begins to run amok and commence killing innocent people. [As zombies tend to do.]
The massive success of this film, coupled with Van Damme now being able to demand multi-million dollar salaries and huge female adoration, caused his already healthy ego to spiral spectacularly out of control. Van Damme's hunger for cocaine, alcohol and women was larger than even his tree-trunk-like thigh muscles and his constant partying lifestyle – and attendant countless infidelities – led to the end of his marriage to Gladys, who'd given him endless tolerant support - [and two children] - despite his personal excesses.
But, for now, Jean-Claude would shed no tears; for he was preparing to move his career into a slightly different direction, in his attempt to be taken more seriously as an actor.
'Sudden Death'; [otherwise known as 'straight-to-DVD'.]
1993's 'Nowhere To Run', featured less fast-and-frantic fight scenes and more plot and characterisation; with Van Damme as an escaped convict who becomes reluctantly involved with a young widow and her son, who are being bullied by ruthless property developers.
This theme of the strong moody loner, with a heart of gold, was reprised in 'Hard Target', which featured heavily stylised action sequences from famed Hong Kong film director John Woo, making his American directorial debut. This time Van Damme helps a woman investigate a group of cold-blooded killers who hunt humans for fun; becoming their latest 'hard target' in the process. [See what I did there? You don't get this standard of writing just 'anywhere' you know.]
1994's 'Timecop' was a different animal altogether; being essentially a time-travel sci-fi adventure, with fight scenes and was another huge box-office success and probably the pinnacle of Van Damme's career, from the point of view of solidifying his position as one of the world's most bankable stars. Thus, it must have been even more devastating for him, that the next movie would effectively destroy this status.
Up until this point Jean-Claude's ambition had been driving his career; gliding smoothly from success to success for nearly a decade but it all began to go horribly wrong with the ill-considered 'Steetfighter'.
Based upon the globally successful video game, this light-hearted comic-book adventure must have seemed like a good idea on paper – or indeed, on video game machines – but was a truly awful movie, which required the viewer to submit to a pre-frontal lobotomy in order to enjoy it. [Or to like 'Neighbours'.]
The film was universally mauled by critics although, to be fair, Van Damme wasn't the only culprit for this almighty flop. Nevertheless, despite other 'star names' being involved with this 'filmic stupidness', it was Jean-Claude's career that has struggled ever since to recapture its former glory. [Perhaps fittingly, because it was a strange choice for a man who'd wanted to be 'taken seriously as an actor' and who had been playing more intense roles. Surely, only money could have lured Van Damme to 'Streetfighter'; in which case 'artistic integrity' suffered at the expense of filthy lucre. And not for the first time.]
1995's 'Sudden Death' was an honourable attempt to win the critics and film-goers over and immediately re-establish his box-office popularity but, strangely, despite plenty of strong action and excitement in this tale of terrorist bombers, it failed to completely convince audiences, who were seemingly still reeling from the sheer awfulness of 'Streetfighter'.
In what appeared to be a desperate attempt to rediscover a previously successful formula Jean-Claude re-teamed with Frank Dux in 'The Quest', a tongue-in-cheek rehash of their previous collaboration 'Bloodsport'. For someone who had never seen a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie before, 'Quest' would probably be enjoyed as an entertaining martial arts movie with a comic edge but for those who had noticed a growing maturity in Jean-Claude's work prior to 'Streetfighter', 'the Quest' became yet another disappointment.
The perception of 'casual' fans seemed to be that, by the time of 1996's 'Maximum Risk', Van Damme's films had become formulaic and predictable. The once spectacular fight sequences were becoming tired and 'old hat' and Jean-Claude was forced to seek ever more elaborate set pieces to please the increasingly cynical fans, which were becoming used to the gritty reality of bone- breaking Steven Seagal movie fight scenes or the stunning complexity and gymnastics of Jackie Chan / Jet Li fight sequences. Thus, perhaps, the brutal fight scene in a shower room in 'Maximum Risk'.
Two of his most confusing films followed. 'Double Team' saw Jean-Claude star alongside eccentric basketball player Dennis Rodman - [who managed to make JCVD look like Robert DeNiro] - and veteran movie tough guy Micky Rourke, as an anti-terrorist agent in this action-filled but totally unbelievable movie, which had 'Prisoner'-like elements to it and was followed by the comic-action film 'Knock Off'; set in Hong Kong and involving Chinese gangsters, Russian Mafia, CIA and exploding denim. [Don't ask.]
Not so 'comic' was Van Damme's erratic behaviour at this time, as he struggled to cope with his diminishing reputation by immersing himself in ever-larger quantities of cocaine and alcohol. His third wife Darcy LaPier divorced him; citing his drug addiction and claiming that Van Damme had 'abused' her.
After being decked by his annoyed bodyguard Chuck Zito, in a bar, after a drunken Jean-Claude had allegedly ridiculed him; Van Damme admitted in an interview that he was suffering from bi-polar disorder and had been 'battling depression' since he was a teenager. [Don't watch 'Streetfighter' then. You'll be searching for a razor blade and a warm bath.]
1998's 'Legionnaire' was Van Damme's first non-martial arts movie and, perhaps predictably because of this, another box office flop. His remaining fans didn't want straight/serious acting from him; they wanted high kicks and naked butts. In an attempt to appease his fans and rescue his floundering film career, Van Damme made 'Universal Soldier II: The Return'. However, it failed to emulate its predecessor's success, leading straight into another forgettable low key/low budget film 'Desert Heat', (aka 'Inferno'.)
After a failed stint in rehab Jean-Claude tried to rectify his worsening cocaine and alcohol problem by remarrying the ever loyal and supportive Gladys Portugues; needing the support of someone who had remained in love with him throughout their years apart.
As Van Damme entered the new millennium his status appeared uncertain. No longer a box office certainty, his films none the less remained popular with Video and DVD renters and, indeed, his films no longer even showed at movie theatre screens. Jean-Claude had joined the growing legion of 'straight to DVD' artists.
2001's 'The Replicant' was actually a very good movie, with Van Damme as a genetically created clone of a serial killer, helping the police to hunt his 'original' down but was followed by the truly awful 'The Order', which only had movie legend Charlton Heston in a wasted cameo role, as its 'selling point'.
'Derailed' was a forgettable adventure, set – as the title suggests – on a speeding train but was succeeded by the far more powerful 'In Hell'; directed by Hong Kong's respected Ringo Lam; a gritty, vicious tale of violence and enforced brutality in a nightmare prison.
2004's 'Wake of Death' was a huge statement by Van Damme. Desperate to get back on to the silver screen, this was a thoroughly modern action movie, featuring brutal torture scenes and the best acting from Van Damme in a long time, as he sought revenge on the men who'd killed his wife.
However, Jean-Claude's career remained stubbornly rooted in 'direct-to-DVD' world and, after a brief absence, he returned in 2006 with the relatively disappointing 'Second In Command' – as an ex-Navy Seal assigned to protect the US Ambassador in a war-torn Eastern European state - and 'The Hard Corps' – playing the head of a team of bodyguards. [Watchable primarily for Vivica Fox...but, hey, that's just me perving.]
'Until Death', though, showed Van Damme's capacity to surprise, with his continuing quest for renewed mainstream success and appreciation for his evolving acting ability. This was another modern gritty tale of a drug addicted cop whose life is falling apart. Unfortunately it was followed by the inferior 'The Shepherd: Border Patrol' and the slightly better third instalment of the 'Universal Soldier' story, 'Regeneration'.
This was succeeded by something quite wonderful; 'JCVD'; an emotional plea to be appreciated and taken seriously as an actor. Jean Claude played himself as a past-his-prime movie star, returning to his home town in Belgium and becoming unwittingly embroiled in a bank robbery.
No makeup, no ridiculous sci-fi plots or 'monkey style' kung fu opponents; just Van Damme, the cameras and a heart-felt performance.
The critics loved it and applauded Van Damme's honesty and the whole concept of the movie but major movie offers – disappointingly – didn't come along and, as an attempt to cash in on the semi-autobiographical nature of the movie, Jean-Claude appeared in a reality TV series, 'Behind Closed Doors', which followed his promotional travels around the world; his attempts to get various movie projects off the ground; his relationship with his wife, kids and myriad dogs.
It was a huge embarrassment. Van Damme came across as an emotionally-fragile fading star, trying desperately to portray his ecological awareness; love of animals; playful/comical side but, generally, undoing most of the good work of 'JCVD', via coming across as a somewhat pompous ass; ageing badly – the former handsome movie star, losing his hair and his good looks but certainly not his ego. The watchable movie 'Assassination Games' thankfully followed and helped erase the memory of Van Damme laying on the floor crying whilst his hotchpotch selection of dogs licked his face. [I couldn't eat for hours afterwards.]
[Note: 'Universal Soldier 4' is soon to be released; along with a role in Sylvester Stallone's 'Expendables 2'.]
Jean-Claude Van Damme's original dream of becoming a 'star' has long since been realised but his credibility as a legitimate martial arts successor to Bruce Lee has been severely damaged by too many substandard outings. Ultimately, he will go down as one of the best of the western martial arts movie stars and his legacy will include such strong cult classics as 'Kickboxer', 'Bloodsport', 'AWOL', and the on-going saga that is 'The Universal Soldier' series but it is doubtful that he will ever now get to realise his ambition of being accepted by his peers and critics as a legitimate 'serious' actor.[David Weeks is a martial arts instructor and author of 'Essence of a Man: A study in male violence'. Available via Amazon.com or Kindle. ISBN 9781468072815.]