Jean-Claude Van Damme made his name in the early ’80s and early ’90s by starring in a series of action hits that made him look like a real tough guy, but he really proved that strength in the years that followed, persisting through direct-to-DVD purgatory after the genre started to fade at the box office. It’s paid off with an unlikely second act for the Muscles from Brussels, who’s seen his profile rebound over the last decade while turning in some of his most critically well-received work. Limber up and oil those pecs, film fans — it’s time for Total Recall!
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Van Damme’s larger-than-life persona and frequently ill-advised offscreen exploits made him a magnet for schadenfreude after the action boom ended, but to his credit, he was able to have a sense of humor about his fall from grace — as evidenced by the down-on-his-luck version of “Jean-Claude Van Damme” he played in 2008’s JCVD, earning some of the best reviews of his career in the process. While the setup retains elements of your average Van Damme action thriller — a seemingly ordinary guy heads into the bank to make a transfer, only to discover he’s stumbled into a stickup — that’s really just the opening for a sharp, ruefully funny drama with a meta layer that allows its star to publicly come to terms with the highs and lows of his real-life past. “By pitting JCVD the axiom against JCVD the person, JCVD deconstructs and deepens the understanding of both,” wrote Christopher Huber for Cinema Scope. “It is nothing if not a triumph of humanism.”
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There’s a certain element of self-aware irony to some of the better-reviewed efforts Van Damme has filmed in recent years, but he’s still capable of anchoring a straight up action thriller, even if the market for the genre isn’t what it once was. Witness Enemies Closer, which sees him reuniting with Timecop director Peter Hyams for the story of a forest ranger/ex-SEAL (Tom Everett Scott) whose life-or-death conflict with a former fellow officer’s brother (Orlando Jones) is interrupted by the arrival of a drug smuggler (Van Damme) determined to plunder a recently downed plane. Had it been released during his heyday, this might have become one of Van Damme’s biggest hits; as Michael Nordine argued for the Village Voice, “Enemies Closer is the first collaboration between Peter Hyams and Jean-Claude Van Damme since 1995’s Sudden Death. The reunion feels long overdue.”
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It isn’t really an action hero party until Jean-Claude Van Damme is invited — something Sylvester Stallone evidently realized while putting together Expendables 2, the first sequel to his over-the-top all-star tribute to the genre. Successfully wooed for the follow-up after reportedly rejecting an opportunity to star in the original, Van Damme joined the well-muscled ensemble as Jean Vilain, a descriptively named bad guy who leads an opposing band of mercenaries in the fight against Barney Ross (Stallone) and his crew of aging heroes. Like the first installment, Expendables 2 did pretty much what it said on the tin, and was rewarded with positive if not effusive reviews; as Sean Burns wrote for Philadelphia Weekly, “Of course it’s garbage. But this is my favorite kind of garbage.”
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A late-period sci-fi/action hit whose bloom into franchise status was derailed by studio problems and changing trends, 1992’s Universal Soldier starred Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as a pair of Vietnam soldiers who died in the war, only to be brought back to life as technologically advanced killing machines. A pair of TV movies continued the story without the original stars, only to be wiped out of canon by a belated theatrical sequel, 1999’s Universal Soldier: The Return, which did without Lundgren and made Van Damme’s character an ordinary human; when that didn’t stick, 2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration reunited both leads and ignored everything but the original. Given its messy history, one could hardly expect the fourth theatrical installment in the series to be met with anything but critical mockery and disdain, but the pundits actually found 2012’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning to be a fairly solid effort, at least in the context of the genre. “Day of Reckoning is somehow not just the best film in the series,” marveled the Atlantic’s Ian Buckwalter, “but a damn fine piece of action filmmaking by any measure.”
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Sure, it’s a Die Hard knockoff — but the same could be said of an arguable majority of all action movies released during the ’90s, and whatever its ills, Sudden Death is hardly the worst of the lot. As with most of Van Damme’s movies, Death casts him as an unlikely hero (in this case, a member of the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau) thrown into a hostile situation and forced to save the day. The mid ’90s represented the end of the stock action flick’s dominance at the box office, and an era in which the action had to be taken to preposterous heights in order to stand out — which is why Sudden Death features, among other things, Van Damme brawling with the Pittsburgh Penguins mascot and engaging in hand-to-hand combat on the roof of Civic Arena as it opens. It’s all very silly, of course, but given that it was written by the wife of Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, it could be argued that the movie transcended expectations. Though most critics were somewhat reserved in their praise, Sudden Death boasts some of the best reviews of Van Damme’s career; in the words of Channel 4 Film’s James Jennings, it offers “all the thrills, spills and stuff blowing up that action fans relish.”
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If you’re the sort of filmgoer who believes in guilty pleasures, 1993’s Hard Target has a pedigree that’s difficult to resist. Not only does it star Lance Henriksen, Yancy Butler, and Wilford Brimley, but it represents John Woo’s American directorial debut, was executive produced by Sam Raimi, and gives a pivotal role to its screenwriter, Chuck Pfarrer. Oh, and did we mention that Van Damme stars as Chance Boudreaux, a mulleted, gumbo-loving drifter who was raised in the bayou? Most of Van Damme’s movies are not without unintentional laughs, but it’s awfully hard to beat his silly New Orleans “accent” here — or, for that matter, Brimley’s appearance as Van Damme’s crusty uncle Douvee. Still, how can you seriously argue with a movie that ends with the hero stuffing a live grenade in the villain’s pants? Answer: You cannot. Most critics were unswayed by Hard Target, but Woo earned praise for his distinctive style, and Van Damme was at his peak: As Kevin N. Laforest of the Montreal Film Journal noted, the star’s “kicks and flips never looked so cool.”
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In a career dotted with cult classics, 1994’s Timecop manages to stand out as one of the cultiest. And okay, so it’s hard to call a movie that raked in more than $100 million worldwide a “cult” picture — but if you’ve seen the way Timecop takes a cool premise (time travel, natch) and renders it both impenetrably complicated and irrelevant to the action, you know it’s essentially the very definition of the term. (Also, it stars Ron Silver.) The plot is full of holes, but as the filmmakers knew, once you accept the notion of Jean-Claude Van Damme as an officer of the Time Enforcement Commission, you can buy into pretty much anything, and by the time you get to Timecop‘s final act — in which past and future versions of Van Damme battle past and future versions of Silver — you’ve reached that wonderful place where the laws of logic no longer exist. The highest-grossing movie of Van Damme’s career, Timecop spun off a sequel, a short-lived television show, and even a series of books. Not bad for a movie that Roger Ebert described as “the kind of movie that is best not thought about at all, for that way madness lies.”
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Van Damme came on strong during the action-heavy late ’80s, closing out the decade with a flurry of martial arts-fueled efforts whose steely titles (Bloodsport; No Retreat, No Surrender) and beefcake-riddled poster art made them irresistible to genre enthusiasts and seemingly interchangeable to detractors. He reached his arguable peak during the era with 1989’s Kickboxer, a movie that saw him contributing to the story as well as choreographing fight scenes. A modestly budgeted hit, it spawned a franchise that kept right on kickboxing through a series of sequels even though Van Damme departed after the original. By the mid-’90s, it stood at five installments; in 2016, the whole saga was rebooted with Kickboxer: Vengeance, which brought Van Damme back — this time as supporting player Master Durand — and managed to earn reviews roughly on par with the middling critical reception afforded the original. “Vengeance is well-crafted good fun,” wrote Variety’s Dennis Harvey, “and good proof that you don’t need more than two hours or $100 million to give ticket buyers their money’s worth in popcorn thrills.”
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It’s really hard to know where to begin with this one. Do we talk about the (alleged) real-life exploits of early MMA star Frank W. Dux, whose accounts of his underground tournament achievements formed the partial basis for the film? Do we talk about the work of a young Forest Whitaker as a military policeman sent to track down our hero Van Damme? Or how about the soundtrack contributions from Michael J. Bishop and Stan “The Touch” Bush? There are so many reasons to love 1988’s Bloodsport, but if we’re forced to choose just one, we’ll have to go with the simple fact that this is where it all began for the Muscles from Brussels — and if you want to see the man in all of his young, helicopter-kicking glory, this is the place to go. It wasn’t a big box office success, but its overwhelming reliance on action, action, and more action won it a number of converts, both critical and otherwise; the New Times’ Luke Y. Thompson referred to Bloodsport as “proudly plotless in a way that other low-budget actioners ought to emulate more often,” and it spawned three sequels — two of which starred Pat Morita. There are reasons why this movie is so beloved that copies of the soundtrack have fetched over $100 on the used market. Not good reasons, mind you, but reasons nonetheless.
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Here, Van Damme does for Ringo Lam what he did for John Woo with 1993’s Hard Target: Namely, kick off a Hong Kong director’s American career with a roundly panned action movie that lacks much of the character and style that made said director famous. Perhaps sensing that Van Damme’s years as a reliable box-office draw were drawing to a close, the filmmakers teamed him up with Species star Natasha Henstridge, and although the critical results were predictably scathing, the commercial returns were initially favorable: Maximum Risk debuted in the Number One spot during its opening weekend. Its box office reign was brief, and its final American tally came in under $15 million, but for a handful of critics, Risk was not without its charms: Variety’s Leonard Klady, for instance, referred to it as “a visceral delight that refuses to be deterred by niceties of plot or character consistency and prefers sweat to emotion” — a nice way of saying that the storyline isn’t worth addressing, which is why we won’t bother to do so here.