William Shakespeare famously said,” all the world is a stage and we are mere actors”. Perhaps, martial arts superstar Jean Claude Van Damme would have a different take to this. It wouldn’t be utterly surprising for him to say, “all the world’s a stage where bad men take control. Let me kick some butt and be a hero”. Well, he certainly knows how to kick butt and he’s been doing that and a hell lot more for nearly three decades in Hollywood cinema. Starting out in 1988, Van Damme who turned 55 on October 18 has made a name for himself as one of the most recognized faces of action movies.
In a career that has spanned 30 years, Jean-Claude has seen many ecstatic highs and some severe lows and, despite being dubbed for a large part of his career as a star who makes no-brainer action flicks, the Belgian has literally cared a ”Van Damn” about what his critics think of him.
Several hits old but forever young and hungry for perfecting an already well-sculpted physique, Van Damme’s enigma lies in his strength to endure, both critics and bludgeoning pressures to survive against all odds, competition and a difficult to experiment action genre, where his super strengths have enabled him to stand out and for so long. His movies aren’t always edgy but have had the streak of experimentation and courage to expand their heart-line against an envelope of action films that often limits creativity. In Unisol (entire 3 movies from the nineties to 2012) Van Damme jumped onto the science action genre. In Sudden Death, he demolished his enemies while playing Ice Hockey in his fireman portrayal. If he was the ultimate “Kumite” winner in the 80s epic Bloodsport, he donned negative colors in the critically acclaimed No Retreat, No Surrender.
Relying less on technology and special effects that often shoulder big budget movies, Jean-Claude’s action wagons drive audiences to engaging journeys based on titanic man-to-man battles. While his big-screen success can be attributed to a bastion of noteworthy action films, his popularity as a global star lends itself to his appeal in genres outside his bulging brawn’s. A kind and lovely man, ever grateful to his lovely fans who hail from all over the world, Van Damme’s sincerest contribution to cinema is that quite like Jackie Chan, his movies have brought in audiences from all over the world, be it native Europe, Central Asia, Middle East and even Africa.
He shot the famous Bloodsport, noticeably his first major Hollywood assignment (made by Newt Arnold) in Hong Kong while Kickboxer, another prominent martial art film was shot in Thailand. With Maximum Risk, we went back to New York in the US of A and shot 1999’s The Order in Israel. His prominent appearances in European cinema, most noticeably- French(Beur sur la ville, 2011) and Turkish films( The Exam, 2006), popular music video’s (Bob Sinclair, Kiss my eyes) and many evocative ad campaigns such as PETA’s have confirmed Van Damme’s non conformity to purely action films and speak of a certain elasticity that add vivid adaptability largely unexpected from action heroes of his stature and class.
Not the last action hero, but definitely one of the best
In the cluttered world of action movies that often straddle between good cop bad cop routine, the ‘hungry killer out on loose’ plot, the adventurous sci-fi flicks and the rigorous “mighty arse-kicker who takes it all”, Van Damme’s career has emerged unscathed despite being chopped into pieces by critics, who infamously up their careers’ ante by destroying that of the actors. The prominent star of several likable and much loved hit movies such as Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Double Impact, Lionheart and Universal Soldier, has even given some blockbusters in the 90s despite notoriously making most of his action films on a shoestring budget. In the last decade, his fans have been left devoid of the fun of seeing a Van Damme flick at theatres since most of films have garnered a straight to DVD release. Notable examples here being collaborations with Vivica Fox, Ringo Lam and Laura Harring in The Hard Cops, Replicant and Derailed respectively.
Here is a man at 55, hardened by a life led in depravity of finances back in Western Europe of the 70s to his continuing struggles in an L.A. of 80s who carved a niche for himself with a sheer appetite for hard-work and rigor and fought against all struggles to make a name for himself. If not for his brand of cinema which is often labeled lame and moderately impressive, one must extend respect and regard to this earnest Belgian who gave a disoriented vein of action films that ran mostly on gun slinging action and mindless butchery- a rich infliction of martial artistry.
He is allegedly not the idealist creator of the most engaging action films nor are his movies going to electrify your brainwaves but, with his sincerity which often reflects in many of his flicks, Van Damme has brought to the canvass of action films- triumphs of an ordinary man fighting against extraordinary circumstances. The central hero in his film is one who often competes to win, whether for personal motivation or for the greater glory of his people- epic battles that border on fiction embracing machismo.
The popular perception of Jean Claude Van Damme is of a happy go lucky guy in the soul of a sincere martial artist who attained heights of fame and often fell into the lair of ordinariness as happens with many leading men despite his handsome looks and a rather sedate or expressionless face that though makes acting look difficult but action and stiflingly deadly stunts- deliciously palatable.
The Muscles from Brussels
The former professional free style Karate exponent and now, father to two young and upcoming actors, daughter Bianca Bree and son, Kristopher Van Damme, JCVD has successfully competed against the likes of bigger and venerable action stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. The iconic action stars at the prime of their careers released films parallel to many of Van Damme’s lesser successful ventures, but there’s been an intangible element of longevity in Van Damme’s complex career that has enabled him to remain unsullied in front of a new legion of action stars, several years younger to his own age, Jason Statham, Vin Diesel and Chris Hemsworth to name specifically.
The muscled hunk who inspired awe in the 90s and garnered worldwide fame for mega releases such as Kickboxer and Bloodsport has commanded fans, both in and outside the USA, most prominently in Western Europe and Asia and, has deservingly earned the moniker, The Muscles from Brussels, being born and brought up at Sint-Agatha-Berchem, Belgium.
Once a shy kid who looked week as thin stack of light weight bamboo, Van Damme was encouraged by parents to take up Ballet in hometown Brussels, something the bespectacled teenager unwillingly took on. Ever since he revived his thin frame, Karate would be the next big mission that the young Jean Claude Van Varenberg would embark on. Ever since opening the popular California gymnasium to push youngsters like himself in his native Brussels toward body building, Van Damme himself pumped up a muscle or two, which clearly to the chagrin of his contemporaries and screen baddies have only solidified his stance as one of Hollywood’s most charming and successful action stars.
Van Damme does Van Dammage
Jean Claude Van Varenberg left Belgium in 1985 for the hunky dory glowing lights of an L.A. he famously dreamt to conquer. It is no surprise that for an alien, back then, especially from a non-English speaking country that was known mostly for Belgium waffles and Belgian brewery, language wouldn’t be the only barrier toward reaching success. Having no godfather’s in the industry didn’t help either.
But the action star has revealed that the rush to become a Hollywood deity was so extreme that he often viewed obstacles as enemy legs that he had to crush past in order to fly to sky-rocketing success. During his struggling days, Jean Claude did everything from selling carpets to delivering pizzas. He was once the famous bodyguard and personal instructor of Chuck Norris. Only when he insisted Newt Arnold who directed Bloodsport, to allow him to showcase his famous 360 degree kick within a garden restaurant, one the tiniest in L.A.’s famous sunset boulevard that Van Damme kicked up some mojo. The director was moved and Van Damme was on a roll.
He portrayed famous American martial artist Frank Dux who competes and wins the “Kumite”, in Hong Kong, an undercover fighting competition in 1988’s blockbuster “Bloodsport”.
And thus, the lesser known Van Varenberg from Western Europe became action heart-throb Van Damme. Through a spurt of sporadic hits such as Kickboxer (1989), Universal Soldier( 1992), Time Cop (1994), Nowhere to Run (1994), the legendary Van Damme imprint was established on a forever hungry action cinema canvass.
Catapulting to worldwide fame
Van Damme’s career has remained a punching bag for critics who can’t fathom anything interesting in an otherwise successful action film career. His movies have signaled triumph of the human spirit against all odds, sometimes in the form of avenging for a loved one’s loss, most visibly in Kickboxer(shot in Thailand), one of his most acclaimed hit and in The Quest, 1996 film premiered at Cannes film which also marked his directorial debut. Shot on a mega scale, he brought together fighters from all parts of the world to win an ecstatic global competition. The famous flick that saw Van Damme doing everything from walking on cricus sticks as a clown to begging and collecting cash on roads to fend for homeless kids to ultimately defeating an imposing evil, he displayed a dash of style and candor hitherto less experienced in action cinema of the 80s and 90s.
The Van Damme of mid 90s even dived into the sci-fi genre and gave prominent hits such as 1992’s Universal Soldier and 1994’s time traveling action drama Timecop. For a man who speaks not one but 5 languages, French, Flemish (native Belgian), Italian, German and English, life has been one roller coaster ride. From being on the streets as a nobody to having a literal biopic released in 2008, appropriately titled JCVD, known for his most promising on screen performance, also his first dramatic step up outside action cinema, Van Damme has battled bitter divorces and cocaine addiction and yet, bounced back to thrive.
He has sensibly shot movies in different parts of the world such as West Asia and Europe and Middle East. With 1999’s major disappointment, “The Order”, where Van Damme showcased explosive action sequences in Israel, the muscular star got fans from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa who came to see the supremely fit action icon.
In last 3 decades, Van Damme has collaborated with many A list celebrities including Dennis Rodman (Double Team), Natasha Henstridge (Maximum Risk, 1996), Sir Roger Moore (the Quest) and most noticeably, Sly Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, two of his main rivals and contemporaries in the mega action hit, The Expandables 2.
A cult figure
In the world of movies where the lightest of flops can cause volatile ripples in your career and media, Jean Claude continues to be the most recognizable poster boy of action cinema apart from once successful, Steven Seagal and Vin Diesel. He calls himself the “Fred Astaire of Karate” and even at 55, an age where his contemporaries are either seen pot-bellied and amidst streaks of one night stand’s having gone into total obscurity, he’s still going strong.
If only his critics would open his eyes and recollect the respect this often undervalued actor has garnered from the likes of Will Smith, Nicholas Cage and Liam Hemsworth, they would be damned of their own damning indignation they have caused to a man who deserves far more respect that is usually accorded.
One of Vladimir Putin’s closest friends, Van Damme who ascended toward comic cinema, most noticeably in Welcome to the Jungle (2013) has romanced actresses most noticeably Kylie Minogue, married, divorced and remarried twice, current wife Gladys Portuguese. For sporting an tireless muscular frame ever since he stepped into the karate ring and for maddeningly pursuing body building even while sailing on a holiday in the Mediterranean, Van Damme’s legend finally found his match with a replica bust created in his honor in 2012 in native Brussels.
Van Damme’s legacy
Present in the loving company of parents, Van Damme was ecstatic to pose alongside a bronzed replica supposedly from the epic Bloodsport, as a mark of respect to Belgium’s greatest movie icon, located just opposite to the Westland Shopping Centre at Brussels.
For those ripping muscles, that stylish gait using which he walked into the heart of Friends’ Monica to his lovely leading ladies in films like Nowhere to Run, Timecop and Hard Target, Van Damme has left a stylish mark in action cinema that fantasizes in its action hero- a cult like figure. From escaping in Cyborg’s(1988) from a Christ’s cross like bondage to redemption and fightback to sporting those cool long streaks in one of his biggest screen triumphs of all time, Hard Target, Van Damme’s impact in Hollywood and in shaping its trajectory of action films cannot be contained in words.
His eyes evoke a certain silence and carry depths that have drowned women over the years. The man who spin kicks his way to news headlines and one whose epic splits in 2013 instantaneously sold Volvo trucks and found the brand picking up a prestigious Cannes ad award has added a sincerity to the pivot of action films. He has given fans what they seek most: a la wham bam, Van Damme spice of cinema where baddies don’t particularly enjoy facing upto their nemesis; JCVD.