Top Ten Van Damme Films
February 11, 2009 Posted by Lucas Huddleston
Some people love Van Damme, some hate him. But one thing's for sure...his movies kick Chuck Norris' ass. So says 411's Lucas Huddleston.
Hello, and welcome to Ten Deep: Week 19. Again, I haven't been permitted to write too much this week due to the family emergency which continues to hold its grasp on the family. I spent the better part of the week at St. Mary's Hospital in Jefferson City, only spending about three days of the past seven at my actual home in Brumley. When I did have time to write, I really didn't feel like too much, as neither my mind nor my heart were into it as much as usual. Just for a quick update on my grandmother, the doctor announced on Sunday that the only thing he can do for her is to make her ‘comfortable'…which in doctor lingo means she's going to die, and all that can be done is to ease her suffering a bit with morphine. So this week, in opposition to my other columns where I was meticulous in writing them as I plotted out exactly what I wanted to say, this week's column is more of a ‘stream of consciousness' type, where I just spewed out whatever came to my mind first…which oddly seemed appropriate for column based on a Best of Van Damme list. All in all, it looks pretty much the same, just shorter. But it was a bit of an experiment, as I've never written like that before.
Monaco Forever (1984): I've never actually seen this film, as the earliest dated movie of Van Damme's that I've seen would be 1985's No Retreat, No Surrender. However, I just HAD to put this one here, as JCVD's role is credited as ‘Gay Karate Man'. That's worth mentioning in and of itself.
Sudden Death: A pretty good venture here for Van Damme, as I've always liked it. But I like others better.
Timecop: A cult favorite for some, but again…there just happened to be ten other films that I liked better.
10. The Quest (1996)
Originally, I wasn't going to put The Quest on here, and I'll tell you why, straight out: the film is in all actuality little more than a remake of one of Van Damme's best. Yeah, that's right, in a film written by Van Damme, he writes a screenplay that pretty much apes Bloodsport in every way conceivable, from the different styles of martial arts that are on display here, to the underground tournament, to the fact that Van Damme's character enters into the proceedings by taking another man's place in the tournament. The only real difference between the two is the fact that the time-period is a bit displaced, from the 1980's to something more along the lines of the 1920's or ‘30's. I'm sure that that would enough to persuade most people to kick the film out of any type of ‘Best of…' list when it comes to Van Damme, but you know what? The hell with that, because I've always liked the film. While it's obviously not as classic as Bloodsport, what the film does indeed ape, it apes rather well, as all the fight sequences are very well done, with even a few being pretty well visually stunning (the fight between the Spaniard and the Brazilian capoeira fighter, for example). All the scenes and set-work looks large and grand, the film is bright and colorful and wonderfully shot. The only thing that The Quest lacks to be better than Bloodsport is simple: it's NOT Bloodsport. Other than that, though, The Quest remains to be one of Van Damme's films that I've always truly enjoyed.
9. Nowhere to Run (1993)
When Nowhere to Run was first released in 1993, I'd be lying if I said I walked away from it liking it all that much. As I'm sure you've already deciphered, Van Damme stood as being my favored martial-arts film hero from childhood, and I grew up watching each and every one of his martial-arts films as soon as they were released on home video (I've never seen a Van Damme film in theaters, which during my childhood, such acts can be chalked up to my parents, who weren't the biggest Van Damme fans in the world…certainly not fans enough to take me to the theater to watch one of his movies). And yet, here was a Van Damme film that…well, it wasn't really all that much of a martial-arts film. And I hated it. Now, I don't really know the specifics behind the film or anything like that, but it had occurred to me then (as well as now, as I look back on it) that Nowhere to Run marked a potential turn in Van Damme's career, a turn that Van Damme himself hoped would jettison him away from being ‘karate dude', and more into a light of being a ‘serious' actor. That's not to say that there's not any fighting in the film, or any of Van Damme's trademark kicks; there are indeed a few fight sequences, and maybe one or two of Van Damme's kicks, but most of the fights themselves are pretty much little more than fist fights. However, what separates the film from most other Van Damme efforts of that era is the fact that the movie isn't perpetuated along via the fight sequences themselves…it's actually somewhat moved along by an actual plot. That's not to say that the plot itself is really anything to write home about, as it deals with Van Damme playing the part of a thief who's stolen loot is located at this homestead that's the residence of a widowed mother and her child. Of course, there's some land baron who desperately wants the mother's land, so he consistently sends his thugs in order to hopefully coerce the woman into leaving her land, which prods Van Damme, who's gotten to know the family quite well (and become the lover for the woman), to battle against the thugs by mostly throwing punches and shooting at them (in fact, as I think back on it, the film seems to borrow themes and such from the Western genre quite heavily). As a kid who loved a good Van Damme to feature copious amounts of ‘front-leg-kicking' (to borrow a term from the Bisch), I couldn't help but be a bit disappointed in a Van Damme film that tried to get by on abstract things like ‘performances', ‘characterizations', and ‘plot'. Now, that's not to say that the film gets by on it all THAT well, but as time has moved along, Nowhere to Run has kind of grown on me to the point that I actually kind of like it.
8. Double Impact
Double Impact, for those that don't know, is your basic, gimmicked Action piece. Now, I know that most Action films do indeed have a gimmick of some sort, whether it takes place on a plane, or the bad guys have taken over a building with just one good guy left alive inside…but here, the gimmick is that of the main star tackling the role of two identical twins with vastly different personalities. And, of course, when your main star is Jean Claude Van Damme…well, is there really any cause for concern? Well, okay, yeah there probably is for some, but even when I was a child, I can remember be incredibly stoked to see this one. If I remember correctly, the tagline was something along the lines of ‘TWICE THE VAN DAMME!', and what kind of red-blooded, action-loving ten or twelve year old boy would I have been if a tag like THAT didn't get me excited? And, even looking back on the film now, Van Damme did a fairly decent job in handling the ‘dual role' situation that the film placed him in, in all honesty (or at least in my opinion). One half of the twins that Van Damme plays is pretty much your standard Van Damme character: he's clean cut, kind of naive, a straight-laced kind of guy. The other half, however, let JCVD do something that, up until that point, he hadn't really been – an egomaniac that proclaimed himself to be a bad-ass, who could not only talk the talk, but could back it up. It's actually pretty fun watching Van Damme play the part of a cocky sleaze-ball rather than the goody-two-shoes that he's normal known to play, and it's even more fun to see Van Damme reunite with bad-ass Bolo Yeung, who's best role came in a Van Damme film actually (but not this one). And as for the martial-arts/action side of things…well, it's ‘TWICE THE VAN DAMME', remember? Which, of course, I believe directly translates into pure awesomeness in all languages.
7. In Hell
Sometime in the late 1990's, I stopped watching Van Damme movies. It seemed to me at the time that the not only had the man's ‘Golden Age' of film work had passed, but that after the release of Double Team, he was attempting to remain somewhat relevant by doing a movie with the then sure-to-garner-attention Dennis Rodman, or the Worm if you prefer. I, personally, have never, EVER cared at all for Dennis Rodman; in fact, I'd go so far as to say that I can't even stand to watch the man on television. Like a lot of kids, I can easily cite Michael Jordan being my favorite basketball player, and could even say that at one time, the Bulls were my favorite pro-basketball team (which is fitting, as since there's no pro teams here in Missouri, why not latch myself onto the nearest team…which also just so happened to be the best team in the NBA). However, after the Bulls acquired Rodzilla? I stopped watching them shortly after that happened. I was once a stout supporter of WCW, even going so far as to watch Nitro over Raw through much of the then WWF's second ‘Golden Era' of 1998-1999 (and I continued to watch Nitro over Raw until Nitro became unwatchable, which was around the time that He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, Deano Machino/Stinko Malenko, Klinger, and the LWO mastermind left the promotion). But when Rodman would show up and rub shoulders with Hollywood (Hogan)? Blech, the main event at Bash at the Beach ‘98 has left a horrible taste in my mouth, even unto this day. And I won't even get into the stupendously dumb and mind-boggling over-coverage that the man received from the mainstream media on the day that he married himself. So it goes that when I first learned of my childhood action/martial arts film hero was to be sharing the limelight in his latest film with THAT particular slug, I had nothing to do with it. To this day, I've never even seen Double Team, nor do I really plan to. For all intents and purposes, via his association with the one of the people on God's Green Earth that I despise, I was officially done with Van Damme's films. For good. That was in 1997.
Since then, I've walked into more than enough Action movie sections of various video retailers to notice that, yes, Van Damme has made more films since Double Team. As time went on, I became a little bit more receptive to them, even intrigued by a few more. However, it wasn't until earlier this year that I finally sat down and watched a Van Damme film post-Double Team…and that film was, of course, In Hell. The main structure of the plot of the film is not too unlike that of The Fugitive, as the film opens with Van Damme working in Russia, where he goes home to find his wife in the midst of being attacked (though not by a one-armed man). His wife is killed, of course, and Van Damme takes off after the guy, who he fights in the streets, where both men are placed under arrest. The guy beats the murder rap because he's wealthy, which in turn leads Van Dammit into a murderous rampage, as he snatches a gun from a nearby cop and shoots the guy that killed his wife right there in the courthouse. Of course, one speedy trial later and Van Damme finds himself in prison, where the warden finds amusement by instigating fights between members of the incarcerated. What's somewhat unique about this film that sets it apart from most other Van Damme films is that in In Hell, Van Damme isn't a karate kind-of guy. In fact, the character he plays doesn't even really know how to fight. Instead, most of the fights that take place in the film are little more than the punch, scratch, bite variety – the kind of fights that take place between two men that are fighting for their lives. Interestingly enough, the fights themselves aren't really the focal point of the plot; in fact, the fights themselves are treated as little more than window dressing, if you will. The REAL drive for the plot is the slow descent of the emotional journey that Van Damme's character endures over the course of the movie. This film calls for the Muscles from Brussels to really, REALLY try his hand at actual acting here, and, you know, Van Damme meets that task pretty well, all things considered. His character is forced to go through moments of ultimate sadness, to the pits of despair, to almost total lunacy…and Jean Claude does a more than serviceable job at conveying the wide range of emotions that are demanded of the role. Heck, even football Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor (former linebacker for the New York Giants) turns in a pretty good performance himself. If you're looking for a Van Damme film that's somewhat different from what is unquestionably the norm for the man, look no further than In Hell. You might even like it.
6. Hard Target (1993)
Not too long ago, I read a review of Hard Target somewhere else on the ‘net, where the author stated in his review that he enjoyed John Woo's work, including this film, and that anybody who walks into a Van Damme movie should know exactly what it is that they're getting into and that one shouldn't critique a film starring Van Damme as they would a ‘normal' film (such as determining the quality of a film through the usual methods, such as acting). The author went on to half-way praise the film…before he went on to give the film an incredibly low score. I thought to myself, why? Why go through the trouble in stating that it's a given that Van Damme isn't the greatest actor in the world, and that one shouldn't judge Van Damme films as being ‘on the level' of most films…and then go on to blast the film in the review? What was the purpose? That being said, believe it or not, Hard Target actually had a bit of hype and expectation attached to it by some people, which is almost unheard of for films that star Van Damme. But it's true, and it's for the mere reason that Hard Target marked the initial outing into the American market for legendary (even then) Hong Kong Action director, John Woo. And while the plot of the film isn't anything all that original (a bunch of rich guys pay good money to hunt human beings, which in this film are all homeless guys that they choose to hunt), the film really isn't all that light on its action nor its violence. In fact, from what I understand, there was a fairly decent sized portion of the film that had been cut for the theatrical release in order to avoid getting an NC-17 rating…though I don't know if that (supposedly) ultra-violent footage has ever been restored for subsequent home video releases. The film is filled to the brim with pumped action-sequence after pumped action-sequence, and it all makes for a very good, very manly piece of film. Here, Van Damme plays a Cajun, and you know what? He does a decent enough job of pulling off the whole ‘Ragin' Cajun' thing that, in my mind (and in my mind for a very long time), the performance in the role of Chance Boudreaux that Van Damme gives in this film is the best unofficial portrayal of Gambit that's ever been. And throw a main villain played by cult icon Lance Henrikson into the mix, and, really, what more could a person ask for?
5. Death Warrant (1990)
I thought about not including Death Warrant on the list, for the sole reason that, even though it came out during Van Damme's ‘Golden Era' (so to speak) and it was one of the first films that popped into my head when I began to assemble the list, it's one of his films that I've never really heard too much about from other people since its original release. Perhaps by taking that into effect, I subconsciously tried to persuade myself that, due to said neglect towards the status of the film, the film might not have as many redeeming qualities as I'd like to think that it does. But in the end, I thought to myself, ‘Screw that', and I put it on here, no further questions asked. Again, no surprise here, but the plot is somewhat derivative of many other films of the Action genre as it's an Action film set in a prison, but, again, screw that. The plot of the film sees Van Damme as a Mountie, who goes undercover in a prison by posing as a prisoner (naturally), in order to get to the bottom of a series of murders that have happened inside said prison. Death Warrant, while it does indeed harbor many of Van Damme's signature kicks and "AAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah"'s (you know the one, where he yells, but as the yell continues it decreases in volume to where it's been rendered into little more than a growl), stands as being one of the first (if not the first) film of JCVD's where he tried to break away from the whole martial-arts film star thing. And it works for the most part, as a lot of the fights found here in this film are of a somewhat rougher nature than most others that had been in a Van Damme film before that time. In fact, Van Damme's character is less of a soft-spoken, ‘fight-only-when-I-have-to' type of character that is pretty much the norm for him, as here he's a little more rougher edged and intense than most other of his roles have found him to be. Even though I first became fan of Van Damme's through his martial-arts movies, Death Warrant still stands as being one of my favorites.
4. Lionheart (1990)
Whereas Death Warrant stood as being somewhat of a departure for Van Damme in terms of the type of film that it was as well as the type of character that the man was portraying, Lionheart (released in the same year, obviously) was a bit of a return to the type of film that made Van Damme a star. With a plot that centers around an illegal fighting ring (which was indeed a plot that was a staple for Van Damme's biggest films in the 1980's), one would think upon a mere glance that Lionheart might indeed very well suck the big one. I, however, have always loved it. Rather than in those other films, where the illegal fighting (while still illegal) was of a more organized nature where there was an actual stage upon which to do battle, here Van Damme's kicky exploits were of more of a street-fighting nature; just to use a couple of examples here, one particular fight between Van Damme (who plays a French Legionaire that has gone A.W.O.L…which is, again, a riff on one of Van Damme's bigger movies) takes place in the depths of an empty swimming pool (save for a rather sizable puddle), while another fight against a gigantic Scotsman in full-kilt glory takes place in the center of a ring of cars. Really, as I sit here and think about it, other than the well-done and brutal fights that are showcased in the film and the main villainous fighter (while not particular memorable for anything he does, he's memorable for the fact that he's a big, big dude with muttonchops…think Andre the Giant's ‘mini-me'), there's really not all that much that would make one think that the film stands out all that much in regards to the other films that Van Damme has made. Perhaps that line of thinking is somewhat valid, and while the film is derivative of Van Damme's earlier works (something that I honestly didn't truly realize until I thought on it and typed it)…but who cares? It's a Van Damme film. Not only that, but it's still one of Van Damme's movies that I've loved ever since my childhood.
3. Universal Soldier (1992)
I heard a rumor once that, long ago when the Masters of the Universe film had been completed and was somewhat successful (all things considering), that there was hopes for a sequel to the 1987 live-action He-Man vehicle. After a time of struggling to get the project off the ground, any thoughts about a Masters of the Universe sequel were ultimately canned, and from the ashes of that particular project was birthed Universal Soldier. If you think about it, it could fit, as you could assume that perhaps Dolph Lundgren (who stars opposite Van Damme here) was maybe signed to a contract to appear in that second He-Man film, and when that fell through, his presence stayed attached to the project when it morphed into Universal Soldier…though that may indeed be stretching it a tad. Nonetheless, I do know one thing, and that is that this film is GREAT. I was almost tempted to put the film in the Number One spot, and at point I did indeed have it there, but I ultimately gave way to a couple of films that hold a certain nostalgic sway over my opinions when it comes to Van Damme's films. For Universal Soldier, however, it's awesome for pretty much two reasons: one, it's almost easily one of the more violent films in the Van Damme catalog; and two, it's pretty much the only film where Van Damme was paired up with another big-screen Action star…and while Lundgren (nor Van Damme, for that matter) is a far cry from the likes of an Arnold or a Sly, he's not really all that much of a slouch, either, as he's pretty much a legitimate bad-ass, as like Van Damme, he's a legit martial-arts student. In fact, Universal Soldier would easily be just THAT more bad-ass if there happened to be a shoot-fight caught on film between the two men here. Not only does Lundgren lend the air that this is a big-time film, he also brings the goods to his role as an insane asshole. One scene that is forever burned into my memory is that of one of the flashbacks to Lundgren and Van Damme's characters tour in Vietnam, where as soon as Lundgren steps into the scene leering like Tom Berringer from Platoon and wearing a necklace made out of human ears, you just KNOW that he's one crazy s.o.b. The only thing that really holds the film back is (unfortunately?) the performance by Van Damme himself, as his child-like actions that his role demands at times comes off as being just a little more goofy than it should have been. Nonetheless, Universal Soldier easily stands as being one of the best films that Van Damme has been a part of.
2. Kickboxer (1989)
Ultimately, there was only one thing keeping Kickboxer out of the top spot on my list, and that is, obviously, the movie that DID earn the top spot on my list. However, that shouldn't be taken as any kind of disrespect to Kickboxer, as in many ways the film is pretty much on par with that other movie…I just happened to like the other one just a tad bit better than I do Kickboxer. Other than that, Kickboxer is great, and no doubt stands as being a fine martial-arts film from the 1980's. At its heart, Kickboxer is pretty much your basic, martial-arts revenge film. At the beginning of the film (if memory serves me right), Van Damme starts as off as being rather meek, not completely trained in martial-arts. His brother is an American champion in the art of Muay Thai, whose success in the States drives him to ply his trade in the ‘motherland', so to speak, of that particular discipline of martial-art, that being of Thailand. Once there, Van Damme's brother enters into a match with extreme hard-ass Tong Po, who dominates the American before leaving him crippled. Following his brother's newfound disability, Van Damme becomes obsessed with learning the craft of Muay Thai, constantly striving in bettering himself at the discipline, all in order to eventually face Tong Po and exact revenge for what was done to this brother…and, of course, his brother wants Van Damme to do nothing of the sort. Of course, it's a Van Damme film, and a Van Damme martial-arts film, so I've always loved it. However, I should note that I've never been entirely too sure as to the actual legitimacy of the fighting styles contained herein; it appears that Tong Po does indeed utilize Muay Thai, yet Van Damme, despite striving to learn Muay Thai, seems to mostly exhibit his own, usual style that's been showcased in nearly all of his films. I don't know for sure about that though, as I'm not exactly an expert on styles of martial-arts, but even if that's the case, it's not really anything that damns the film in my eyes (for hardcore Muay Thai enthusiasts though, that might be different story). The story and the characters of the film have always been more than serviceable enough, much more so than some other Van Damme efforts, and the film probably also stands as being the best acting job of Van Damme's early films (take that for its worth, of course). The villain of the film, Tong Po, is one of the more memorable of Van Damme's film villains, and the final battle between the two men, which is a death match where both men tape up their fists and dip them into broken glass, is a great climactic confrontation, and one of the best climaxes in all of Van Damme's film catalog. Kickboxer has actually spawned a bit of mini-franchise in its wake, as there has been four more films made since the release of the first, all sans Van Damme, and all starring Sasha Mitchell from Step by Step as the younger brother of Van Damme. While the remainder of the franchise is really nothing to scream about with most of them not really being all that good, the same can't be said for the original that started it all. Kickboxer is great.
1. Bloodsport (1988)
While I can't be one hundred percent sure, I've always said that Bloodsport was the very first Van Damme film that I ever saw. And after taking into account the many, many times that I KNOW that I've watched it since my childhood, I'd say that such a statement probably wouldn't be too far off the mark. For my money, I'd go so far as to say that, like Kickboxer, Bloodsport stands as not only being one of the best films in the Van Damme catalog, but also as being one of the best martial arts film to have been created in the 1980's…with the lone exception that Bloodsport is slightly better than Kickboxer, of course. The plot of Bloodsport is quite simple: an American military dude, trained in martial-arts, ducks (Dux? No, no, that's not right…) the service enters into the forbidden Kumite, an illegal martial-arts competition, in order to participate in it and win it, all the while being hunted down by American agents in order to bring him back to the States. That's it, and in a karate flick, that's all you need – just simple, straight-forward story that allows for fighting to ensue. Of course, for those that don't know, Bloodsport is SUPPOSEDLY based on the true life story of a man named Frank Dux (as in ‘put up your dukes'), which is, naturally, the role that Van Damme himself plays. Over the years, there have been some that have risen up and claimed that many of Dux' exploits are in fact fraudulent (he claims to have fought in over three-hundred martial-arts matches, as well as being the multiple time victor in the Kumite), which Dux still holds fast to. Of course, the problem with both sides of the argument is that Dux' participation in the Kumite, by its very definition of being an underground illegal tournament, is near impossible to validate or confirm in any way. However, Dux' real life controversies surrounding the Kumite is no reason to dislike Bloodsport, which is, in fact, AWESOME. Naturally, it's not awesome because of things like acting and such; the film is awesome because of the many fights that are showcased in the movie, as well as the many different styles of martial-arts that are given screen-time during the course of the film. According to the film, Van Damme utilizes Ninjutsu, and his main buddy Ray (played by Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds) is a progenitor of the Vale Tudo fighting style (apparently, though I've always thought he fought more like a professional wrestler); on top of those two styles, you also get to see the likes of Sumo, Kung Fu, Jeet Kun Do, Muay Thai, capoeira…the list goes on and on. However, the real draw here for me has always been not only Van Damme in all his high-kicking goodness, but the main villain as well, Chong Li (played by Bolo Yeung). Li stands as being probably one of my all-time favorite villains in not only Van Damme films, but in the genre of martial-arts films entirely, as not only is he the biggest prick in the world (his finishing move appears to be twisting the necks of his opponents in order to kill them…since just whipping their ass and knocking them out isn't nearly enough), he also comes across as being one of the toughest mofo's walking the planet. From his heavily scarred face to him being probably one of the most muscle-bound men of Oriental descent that I've ever seen, he just looks like somebody you don't want to screw around with, and just emanates the feeling of ‘bad-ass' like no one else. In my mind, Bloodsport is not only far and away the best film Van Damme ever starred in, but it also stands as being one of the finest martial-arts films of all-time.
Well, that's it for this week. Hopefully by next week, my personal time will have gotten back on track. Thanks for bearig with me this past few weeks.
Jean-Claude Van Damme