Happy Belated Birthday, Jean-Claude Van Damme!
In his 47th year, the actor prepares to unleash his greatest performance yet.
Yesterday marked the birthday of a close personal friend of mine, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Jean-Claude and I have never met, but I know him better than I know my own wife. Occasionally, my wife will do something that surprises me. Over the course of 33 movies, Jean-Claude Van Damme has never surprised me. Apart from some random drunk disco dancing in Kickboxer, our relationship has been entirely predictable.
To celebrate the occasion of his 47th birthday, I sat down with five of his movies I'd never seen, looking forward to a long evening of maximum Van Dammage. It turns out that I'd seen them all. Three of them I'd seen twice. And that's the magic of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Whether he's playing a character named Chance Boudreux, Jack Robideaux, Edward Garrotte, William Guile, Phillip Sauvage, or Gibson Rickenbacker, he's always the same. Some action heroes need a gimmick to stand out. They need quips, a catchphrase, a bullwhip, or a .44 Magnum, but not Jean-Claude. He doesn't stand out at all. He's like the wallpaper.
This is due to his natural limitations. His physical limitations he's overcome through hard work. Jean-Claude Van Damme started out in life as a baby, which was tremendously frustrating for him because babies are, by their very nature, skinny and weak. In adolescence, a thick pair of enormous glasses were added to the equation, and in photos of him at this age he looks like an annoyed duck. Finally, his dad couldn't take it anymore and enrolled him in karate classes. Jean-Claude trained fanatically, took up bodybuilding, and then, realizing that he would never be as big as the other karate students, he trumped them by becoming more flexible, and he took up ballet.
Moving to Los Angeles in 1982, he landed the occasional role frugging in the background of Breakin', or billed as "Very Gay Karate Man" in Monaco Forever, but mostly, for six years, he tried very hard to be noticed. Finally, he wormed his way into the offices of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the tasteless producers behind exploitation outfit Cannon Films, and he showed them his balletic kicks and deep splits. They, being greedy and unatheletic, were impressed enough to show him the script for Bloodsport, which wound up being his first starring role. This story always amazes me—who knew that Bloodsport had a script? It went on to gross $35 million on a tiny budget—and the rest, as they say, is repetition. Bloodsport was followed by Kickboxer, which was followed by Cyborg, which was followed by Death Warrant and Lionheart and so on, a slew of cheesy exploitation flicks that anyone could watch and enjoy. Well, maybe not Cyborg. No one should watch Cyborg.
Jean-Claude's other limitation, however, has turned out to be impossible to overcome: He can't act. If that sounds judgmental, then I suggest you watch Universal Soldier, a movie in which both he and Dolph Lundgren play cybernetically enhanced, reanimated corpses. You'd think this was the perfect showcase for Jean-Claude Van Damme, but watching him pit his acting ability against Lundgren's is like watching one of Jerry's Kids get in the ring with Mike Tyson. Even as a zombified killing machine, Jean-Claude is clearly out of his depth.
But he's managed to do a lot with a little. Jean-Claude has three expressions: worried, charming, and doing a split. Of the three, doing a split is the most convincing. Getting crucified in Cyborg? Worried. Disposing of a bomb that could blow up a sacred Muslim shrine and start a jihad in The Order? Really worried. Meeting a spunky lady reporter in any number of movies? Charming. Confronting the hitmen who killed his wife? Do a split.
For a lot of actors, not being able to act would be an obstacle, but Jean-Claude has transformed it into his trademark. Acting? Acting is for weirdos like Forest Whitaker (Bloodsport), Kylie Minogue (Street Fighter), or Kieran Culkin (Nowhere to Run). Jean-Claude is just a normal, average guy, you know? When he fights, he likes to head-butt his opponents and kick them in the nuts, the way normal people fight. His love interests don't look like supermodels or even actresses, they look like the gals you see at commuter bars packing away Bloody Marys and waiting for the 6:45 to Hackensack. In Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, USA Today is the paper of record and foreign countries are where the police are corrupt and you get hassled by immigration. He may be from Belgium, but in his movies, he's an All-American Guy.
Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.
Photograph of Jean-Claude Van Damme by Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images.