Tom Jolliffe looks at Jean-Claude Van Damme’s history of tournament fight films…
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For a while in the earlier career of Jean-Claude Van Damme, that seemed to be more or less the case. When Enter the Dragon ended up as a cultural and cinematic phenomenon, a host of imitators followed in its wake. A protagonist finds himself fighting in either legal or illegal underground fights (mostly the latter) for either money, a prize, or some personal mission. Usual formula would then see a series of one on one battles, culminating (atypically in JCVD’s case) in a battle with a huge opponent.
Just as that formula film was beginning to wane in appeal as the 80’s saw a shift in tastes to run and gun, a new cinematic contender balletically jumping in the air, spun around a full 360 degrees whilst delivering a split kick. It was Van Damme. Briefly we’ll step back though, to one of his first roles prior to breaking big with Bloodsport. Van Damme got his auspicious tournament fight film debut in No Retreat No Surrender. On this occasion, the largely unknown Belgian actor played the imposing Russian villain. The film was a moderate success, ultimately spawning a couple of sequels (minus lead Kurt McKinney and Van Damme). It was Van Damme that attracted the most notice though and he exuded the most star power.
Van Damme got his major break thanks to Cannon Films with (the now iconic) Bloodsport. This resurrected a sub-genre in a big way, providing the biggest impact to fight films in the west since Bruce Lee’s final (complete) work. Van Damme starred as Frank Dux who participates in a prestigious invitation only MMA tournament in Hong Kong. Dux ditches the army to compete and is tracked across Hong Kong by a couple of officers (Forest Whitaker and Norman Burton). Allegedly all based on the real life Dux’s personal experiences, but he’s oft been accused of being a fantasist. Whatever the case, it’s a film which works cinematically because it’s larger than life and a bit silly at times.
The film was a perfect showcase for the new star, who fights his way through an array of opponents, among a host of training montages and a magnificently 80’s soundtrack (great synth score from Paul Hertzog). The film still remains one of Van Damme’s best, for sheer entertainment value. He’s certainly come a long way as an actor, but physically here, he was show stopping. Boyish good looks, a physique to compete with the other bicep beasts of the era and the graceful martial arts that looked more spectacular than efficient. In fact Van Damme’s on screen fighting theatrics often drew ire from rival martial arts actors, not limited to a few in his slip stream back then like Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, and most certainly his direct rival in the early 90’s Steven Seagal. Van Damme’s M.A prowess and tournament fighting record have long been called into question. Regardless, the man knew how to stage and sell his physical attributes and skills, all culminating in a face off with the legendary Bolo Yeung (who of course had a memorable turn in Enter the Dragon).
Soon after Bloodsport, he made Kickboxer. To all intents and purposes, it’s more or less the same film. This time Van Damme takes the battle to Thailand to face off with the Muay Thai beast who crippled his brother during an exhibition fight. Paul Hertzog returned to score, giving the film even more familiarity. The differences, and a particularly enjoyable training montage and end battle make Kickboxer an essential Van Damme viewing. It’s not quite as good as Bloodsport, but it’s an enjoyable fight film. By this point though, it had become evident that Van Damme’s particular magnetism had been best utilised in his three fight films, more so than in Cyborg and as a villain in the largely forgettable Black Eagle.
Next up saw Bloodsport’s writer Sheldon Lettich get in the directors’ chair for Lionheart (co-written with JCVD). Here, Van Damme is Leon, who deserts the army to visit his mortally wounded brother. He doesn’t make it in time, but feels guilt and protective over the family his brother has left penniless. Leon begins fighting in underground fights, raising money for his brothers ex and his young niece. So Lionheart blends a few elements from both Bloodsport and Kickboxer (going AWOL, a brother, and of course the fighting). In truth, Lionheart is probably my favourite of the three. It’s a little more serious on the whole, less reliant on montages and there’s even more heart with the family dynamic. Of course it’s not Scorsese by any stretch, but there is plenty of heart, and Van Damme, whilst rough around the edges, shows a little vulnerability (when he’s not flexing and posing). He’s also well aided by a good cast. The brawlers he faces are more secondary than they were in Bloodsport or Kickboxer and it’s more about Leon’s journey with his family and trainer. Harrison Page gives a genuinely great performance as Joshua, the fast talking bookie who sees dollar signs when he meets Van Damme. Joshua is the kind of guy who never cuts a break and always digs himself deeper. Perennially cursed to be a loser, but maybe he’ll change. He elevates the film and there’s a nice repeating theme in the score from John Scott. Lettich also knew exactly how to shoot (and cut) Van Damme in action.
In the middle of the 90’s, as Van Damme’s star was high and he had a certain freedom to indulge himself, he made his directorial debut. So what kind of film could be make? Van Damme went back to the cinematic tournament circuits that made his name. The Quest took Van Damme to exotic locales again, for a prestigious MMA tournament. Van Damme is part of an entourage which includes a suave British conman who could only have been played by Roger Moore (who is always good value), who plan on stealing a priceless statue from the hidden Tibetan city housing the tournament. Soon though, he becomes more intent on winning the tournament and besting the villain. The Quest was one of a string of flops which ultimately put the kaybosh on Van Damme’s cinematic career. That being said, for all it’s haphazard over indulgence, it certainly feels lavish and it remains formulaically enjoyable (with that dash of enjoyable Moore charm offering a boost).
In 2003 Van Damme was pretty well stuck in straight to video land, but that didn’t put him off from revisiting the formula that made him famous to begin with. He reteamed for a third and final time with legendary HK director Ringo Lam for In Hell. Imagine crossing The Shawshank Redemption with Bloodsport, and you’ve got In Hell. Van Damme is serving a life sentence in a Russian prison after avenging his wife by murdering her killer. He soon runs afoul of guards, becoming completely empty inside. Then he turns to fighting in the organised prison brawls. There’s no flash and pizazz here. No show-stopping 360 jumping spin kicks, with Lam opting for grittier fight sequences which are brutally effective. This one is an interesting film, marking a new century shift in Van Damme’s focus from his action sequences and posing, to focusing more on his acting (and a particularly fascination with pessimist cinema). It was a period, where alongside films like Wake of Death and Until Death, he was showing off a grittier and edgy side to his performing. He was proving he could act, although in a dash of irony, not to the kind of wide audiences he had a decade earlier.
Van Damme fans have tended to have mixed feelings on the grittier era of Van Damme’s career. His best works of the period include his Universal Soldier sequels with John Hyams, JCVD and the recent film The Bouncer. They don’t tend to get the love. The fans have often yearned for more Kickboxer type films (with Van Damme leading) or lighter action fare in the vein of Double Impact. Basically, they want the 360 kicks. Time however, has other ideas and performers have to grow and mature into what they can do more comfortably (and realistically), whilst those old school balletic theatrics have dated a little. Van Damme however, did return to the world of tournament fight films in the rebooted Kickboxer sequels, Vengeance (poor) and Retaliation (decent). Ironically he felt like a third wheel in the films, not entirely necessary, or particularly engaged in the material. Whether Van Damme will revisit his more popular work (at least in terms of themes and tone) remains to be seen, though at 60, you’d imagine it would be unlikely.
What’s your favourite Van Damme film? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.