In the pantheon of legendary 80's and 90's dumb action movie stars (the top tier being Arnold, Sly, Steven Seagal and JCVD) they all ranged in their believability and thus, their inherent comedy - intentional or otherwise. Seagal was usually the most gritty and realistic (when I use the term "realistic" take it with a grain of action movie salt) even though he never got a scratch on him. Following him comes Stallone who takes himself way too seriously and thus translates this onto his movies, though we should all watch Nighthawks for evidence on how this too can become hilarious. Then comes Arnie who doesn't have a problem acting goofy to embrace some comedy to relieve action movie tension but also has a fair share of actually good movies. Last but certainly not least is the man we are here to talk about today. You can never really tell where his movies are going. They can be overly serious and then turn into a comedic farce in what seems like seconds. He's not the strongest actor but the guy's athletic talents can't be denied. Whereas those other guys were more inclined to grab a gun or just punch it out, Jean-Claude turned fighting into an art. A martial art if you will. There was a stretch from the mid-80's to the mid-90's where he put out movies that I would never call great but still have so many moments, legitimately good or illegitimately hilarious, that make them worth watching, especially if you grew up with the genre like myself. As always though, you're only as good as your villain so let's meet the best that Jean-Claude has tangled with over the years...
10. Joshua Foss (Sudden Death)
9. Cynthia (Lionheart)
8. Fender Tromolo (Cyborg)
We've reached the first of the near-cartoon level of Van Damme villain. This goes along, naturally, with having a ridiculous name. Tromolo is the leader of a post-apocalyptic gang that is dedicated to NOT having a cure for a world-ending plague released to the public. This cure lies with a cyborg making it's way across the wastelands. Tromolo first says he wants the cure because he likes the way the world is but later I guess it is because he wants to control it's production. I'm not really sure, either way, he likes to growl a lot and kill people for no reason (two hallmarks of a great cartoony villain). Cyborg is a tremendously boring movie when Tromolo isn't on-screen.
7. Edward Garrote (Replicant)
Now I haven't actually seen the movie Replicant because I've sworn off Jean-Claude movies made after 1996 for a multitude of reasons but the foremost being the ones I have seen were absolutely terrible (and most of them not even in the terribly awesome way, just plain terrible). I just had to include this one because it is Jean-Claude fighting himself. Get this, Jean-Claude plays Edward Garrote, psychotic killer and sadist who is impossible to hunt down. The police think the best way to fight this guy is to CLONE HIM. What the who what what? They also specifically say that the clone (or "replicant" if you want to sound stupid) will eventually get Garrote's memories and emotions (along with the ability to do the splits presumably), pretty much saying that it will become him. Seems like a pretty big risk to clone a serial killer to find him but again, this is a Jean-Claude movie so we can't rightfully consider these things. Just watch Van Damme fight himself and live a little!
6. The Sandman (Death Warrant)
5. M. Bison (Street Fighter)
Oh you better believe I'm going there. Street Fighter might just take the cake for worst Jean-Claude movie ever as it is a disaster in every sense of the word. The one saving grace of this movie, however, was Raul Julia's performance as M. Bison. He deserves what I like to call an Anti-Oscar for this film, as in he hams up and soaks in every bit of ridiculousness that this movie provides for him. Mostly though, it's because he's the only one who seems to realize the type of movie that they are in (a piece of crap) and instead of phoning it in like a lot of people would when coming to that realization makes the best of it with one of the most insane acting performances of all-time. He's like every Bond villain rolled into one with the volume turned up to 11. He also has flying boots which add a certain elegance to his world-conquering insanity. Not!
I've mentioned Dolph Lundgren a few times on this blog, and that's because I feel he is probably the most under-appreciated action star of the time when I was partially obsessed with the genre. I'm not exactly sure why he never reached the plateau of the other guys that I mentioned, as he had everything that they had and then some (the guy is literally a genius, which I can't really say for any other action movie stars). It probably just comes down to film choices and connection with the audience, both of which Dolph never quite succeeded at for some reason. Universal Soldier was maybe the closest he came to finding mainstream action movie success but it came with a price: he had to be the bad guy. It's not like he wasn't used to this role as he had made his first big cinematic splash as the Rocky IV villain Ivan Drago, but after that he seemed to fit more into the realm of protagonist. Universal Soldier marked his return to antagonist and it still fit pretty well. He is obviously an intimidating presence and an accomplished fighter which meant that the fight scenes were well-choreographed and exciting. He also plays the psychotic bad guy in an actually subtle sort of way for a big chunk of the movie which is sorely missed in a lot of other Van Damme efforts. Shit, I'll just go ahead and say that I kind of like Universal Soldier and Lundgren is a big reason why.
3. Senator McComb (Timecop)
Ah Timecop, probably the Van Damme film that I am the most torn over. I think the story is actually very intriguing and the effects are great for the time despite awful dialogue and mostly terrible acting. The one bright spot on the acting front is Senator McComb, played by the talented Ron Silver. Silver has to play two roles in this film: the younger, innocent senator and the older, morally vacuous senator ten years in the future. It really speaks a lot about Silver's ability to express without words because I can absolutely tell which one is which from that picture up there, despite their ages not being particularly obvious. The devilish twinkle in the right one's eye means evil, while the innocent, vacant expression on the left means not evil quite yet. I hate to keep praising the performance but it also says a lot about it that it really is the thing I remember most about the movie besides Jean Claude's horrible mullet. The younger McComb actually doesn't seem like a bad guy at all so it becomes apparent that he isn't really a bad guy but was more corrupted by greed and power (which is a universal tale). By the end I felt kind of sorry for him, though I forgot all about that momentarily because of the awesome merging scene.
2. Tong Po (Kickboxer)
We're getting near the end here and it is finally time to reveal my favorite type of Van Damme movie: the one where he actually fights guys legitimately. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for big gun battles and fighting 5 guys at once but it takes away some of the epic feeling of the actual fight. This movie reads like an 80's action movie blueprint: guy's brother gets hurt in a fight against seemingly invincible opponent; guy wants to avenge brother but knows he isn't good enough; guy gets trained by mystical trainer and finds his inner fighting strength; guy still gets beat up initially by invincible opponent but overcomes him at the end against all odds (again, usually with a primal scream). Seriously, there are so many fighting movies almost exactly like that. Tong Po though, man, this dude is legitimately scary. Like, run the other way in an alley type scary. Seeing him knee the concrete columns before the fight with Jean-Claude's brother still sort of gives me the shivers. Not only that, he's also firmly involved in the shady side businesses of his employers, which wasn't really the norm. Usually for these types of movies there is a figurehead that pulls all the strings and the main, invincible fighters are just their pawns. Not Tong Po though. By the 3rd sequel (yikes) he is off-the-charts evil, actually running the businesses and killing people, and gets progressively scarier looking as the sequels roll by. Take a look at how he looked near the end...
1. Chong Li (Bloodsport)
"You are next!" and he is first.
And now let's thank our hero, Mr. Jean-Claude Van Damme, one last time for all of the adventures he has gone through and all of the trials and tribulations he has overcome. Thanks JCVD!