Tom Jolliffe on the second coming of Jean-Claude Van Damme in The Expendables 2 and the muscular thunder he looks set to steal...
Jean-Claude Van Damme was just a fresh faced young Belgian with a pocket full of dreams when he left his home to try his luck in America... and his pockets had plenty of rooms for dreams, as he came with barely a penny to his name before slogging his guts out to superstardom. It’s a story of an action star that is not entirely unique to Jean-Claude. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s was similar and so was Dolph Lundgren’s. Genuine rags to riches tales from the land of opportunity. Hitting it big in films like Bloodsport and Kickboxer, the 90s proved particularly fruitful for Van Damme as the likes of Universal Soldier and Timecop launched him to the A-list, and shoulder-to-shoulder with the big earning action guys like Arnold, Sly and Bruce.
Then the decline: Diminishing takes, going into the 00s, afflicted most in the genre and soon JC found himself in the straight-to-video arena. Since that time he’s been leading the market in straight-to-vid action alongside Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren. Throughout his career, critics mauled Van Damme. He was passed off as just another grunting muscle man with the emotional expressiveness of a tree trunk. In 2008 he starred in JCVD, a French film where he played himself. It was a demi-true to life view of the Muscles from Brussels, with the dramatic plotline of a post office robbery gone bad that JC gets the blame for. The film was fresh, inventive and Jean-Claude bared his soul to the audience - the most notable moment coming as the film went all arty and French by breaking the fourth wall in JC’s to camera confessional. Finally he’d received acclaim from the movie critics - not just for a film he was starring in, but also for his performance. It was a bold movie choice, and a total change of pace for the Belgian bruiser, but one which paid off.
As a fan, I’ve always seen promise in Jean-Claude the actor. Obviously what drew me in was the majestic sight of Van Damme unleashing one of his many patented kicks (the helicopter being my personal favourite, and often seen in slow motion in about five angles!) but as he’s matured, his performances have too. In reality he always comes across as a deeply thoughtful and emotional person. He’s a man with a great deal of empathy and perhaps sometimes a difficulty to focus (in part from being bi-polar). His moods shift, as seen in the recent and fascinating ITV documentary Behind Closed Doors. His eyes convey feeling, even sometimes in his early career when his face and awkward dialogue struggled to do so. Unlike some of his contemporaries, it often felt like there was something going on behind the eyes. We had early glimpses that, ironically, became more apparent as his career descended into video obscurity. To the wider, more mainstream audience, Van Damme pushing himself more and more as an actor went by unnoticed, with the exception of his fans. A real shame.
A few of his direct-to-video specials showed a more intense side to the actor. The films were middle of the road at best, but Van Damme elevated the ordinary and surprised genre fans who saw them. Wake of Death and Until Death were notably dark roles for Jean-Claude. A criticism that’s been leveled at Van Damme in the last decade has been the loss of humour in his films and his characters. The enduring image in his films of late has been men without joy, in a dark place, devoid of light and hope. To his credit, he takes these roles seriously and he injects a piece of his soul into them (at least the better ones and not the ones which feel like he’s there for the cheque). What is a shame is that Van Damme is quite funny. Some films use his comedic side quite well. “I just want to eat,” (Universal Soldier) always raises a smile whenever I see it. He showed off a talent for subtle humour too in JCVD. He’s never had much gift for the Arnie-esque one liners but that isn’t - and shouldn’t - be his thing. He has a gift for physical humour and comedic timing that needs to be utilized more and hopefully will be in the forthcoming film, Welcome to the Jungle. In addition, let’s face it - those beer ads are funny!
This summer comes a major turning point in his career. Having turned down a role in The Expendables to much bemusement (myself included), Van Damme now has the lead villain role in the sequel. The trailer last week caused a surge in action geek testosterone that almost led to an apocalyptic earthquake. We had Arnie back kicking ass, along with Chuck Norris and of course Van Damme. Word from the set - most notably from Sylvester Stallone himself - is that Van Damme is on fire in this film. The first movie was lacking in many respects - not least, in a strong villain. Now The Expendables 2 has a strong villain, someone to match up to the personality and power of anyone else in that film. I have a gut feeling that this is Van Damme’s film. Chuck and Arnie will get geeks (myself included) giggling with joy and excitement as they breeze in and out, guns blazing, but Claude (as Sly calls him) may well steal the movie. These days Van Damme carries a weight and an intensity in the roles he plays. He delves into his characters, even when there’s little material in the scripts to help him. He’s been dark, moody, turgid and perhaps even devoid of some of the fun that we had in Bloodsport per say, but there’s a sense to me, that those roles were training (he likes training, just look at most of his early films!) for something bigger.
Indeed, the darkness lends itself well to villainy. Furthermore, in recent times, Jean-Claude has toned down his action. Gone are the flashy, show-stopping kicks and balls-out action we used to see. Many fans miss the days when Jean-Claude would unleash a hail of slow-motion flying kicks to the face of a Bolo Yeung or a Dolph Lundgren. The splits have been put into the cupboard for now. Van Damme says it’s for artistic reasons. Doubters feel like it could be an age reason, but the trailer featured a moment - a wonderful moment - that had every JC fan prick up their ears in excitement, and possibly soil themselves too (I didn’t go that far…I swear!)... the cupboard was unlocked, and he let out one of his old trademark kicks! Much internet debate has raged as to whether it was a full on helicopter kick, but we’ll call it that anyhow. For fans, it’s good to see that return. It’s been a long time since Van Damme cracked a jaw with one of those bad boys, but Sly made it happen! Not only that, but while he’s always stayed in good shape, Jean-Claude looks like the beast of a man he was 20 years ago. He’s seriously pumped!
With such an array of personalities on screen in one film, time will tell if Jean-Claude can take the movie home in his pocket, but there’s just a sense, that out of all of them, he could. What next though? In an ideal world, the big offers will come flooding in and allow him to satisfy the fans with a steady mix of the high kicking Van Damme of old, the contemplative, troubled modern Van Damme, and perhaps a few new dimensions too. He’s got Universal Soldier: A New Dimension coming this year too, which sees Jean-Claude as a kind of Unisol version of Colonel Kurtz (Apocalypse Now), but for many, The Expendables 2 will be the first slice of Van Dammage they’ve seen in nearly 20 years. If the film is as successful as the first financially, and hopefully much more artistically, then the limelight will be back upon the Muscles from Brussels. In a career that’s been peppered with wrong choices, it’s the fans' hope that he makes the right ones over the next 12 months as he rides the wave that Stallone has put him on. I for one see bright times ahead for a re-invented and rejuvenated Van Damme.