It’s time for the undisputed, inarguable, and definitive Top 10 Jean-Claude Van Damme movies…
The Muscles from Brussels turned 62 this year. He’s had a stellar career filled with majestic, high-kicking action. The most iconic image of Van Damme, aside from his infamous bicep pose, is the glorious sight of him leaping in the air and performing a helicopter kick. He rose during an era which was ruled by Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but he gracefully posed his way to within their orbit thanks to breakout hits like Bloodsport and Kickboxer, before hitting wider box office appeal with the likes of Timecop, when he delved into slightly more high concept material.
I’m sure there have been thousands of JCVD ranking lists over the years. They’re all wrong of course because this one is quite obviously going to be the definitive one. I’ve watched every film. I’ve endured Derailed, Kill Em All, and Pound of Flesh. I can spoil one thing for you now…none of those have made the Top 10. Still, though Van Damme has made a few less-than-stellar offerings, when it comes to unleashing some Van Dammage, he’s delivered films that I’ve for the most part always enjoyed.
Without further ado pop pickers, here is our top 10 countdown of Jean-Claude Van Damme films, which are purely focused on Van Damme as the lead (because who wants to only see JC in a small role?).
10 – The Bouncer
Post-millennium Van Damme cinema has divided some fans. In Hell and Wake of Death proved to be significant turning points. We’d seen ‘character-focused’ directors pushing JC for more range in the mid-late ’90s (notably Ringo Lam). This brought forth a grittier, more brooding Van Damme archetype, often playing flawed or broken characters, or as some naysayers said, ‘the miserable Van Damme.’ Sometimes it impressed in albeit flawed movies, other times the writing wasn’t fleshed out enough to make some of the characters engaging.
Step forward to 2018 and Van Damme does one of his all too rare French language films, The Bouncer. You have a decent director in Julien LeClercq and the cinematographer of Revenge (Coralie Fargeat’s acclaimed exploitation film). The Bouncer looks great. It’s a lithe 90 minutes of admittedly well-worn story tropes, but Van Damme, almost perfecting the ‘miserable Van Damme’ archetype here, is in great form. Some bone-breaking, MMA-inspired fight sequences bring Van Damme into contemporary action design. It’s a dark, moody film with splashes of Lynne Ramsay. Critics gave it solid reviews, in spite of the ruthlessly simple idea, but for some reason, his fans just never quite took to it.
9 – Kickboxer
Look, Kickboxer is great. There’s no denying it. It cemented the formula that would make Van Damme a money-making machine moving into a new era of action cinema. The only thing that really holds Kickboxer back, is the fact that it’s got so many beats matched from a certain breakout film Jean-Claude had made two years prior, even down to Paul Hertzog returning with a gloriously 80s synth score.
I love Kickboxer, and Van Damme’s double whammy of tournament fighter hits essentially inspired a decade of inferior copycats that laid siege upon VHS stores in the early 90s, be it the Bloodfist series or the sequels to Van Dammes two most famous kickboxing films. The film has some great Thai locations (as well as largely Hong Kong locales doubling for Thailand) and the final battle is suitably glorious.
8 – Maximum Risk
Before The Bouncer and its gritty approach to Van Dammage was duly undervalued by fans, there was a turning point movie that looked as if we might be seeing a Van Damme in transition to more mature characters and films. This was Maximum Risk. It still ticks every genre box expected and is action-packed, but Van Damme reigned in the show stoppers like his Helicopter kicks and the slow-motion money shots. Fight sequences were more down and dirty, brutal, most brilliantly exemplified by a thunderous elevator brawl.
Director Ringo Lam was taking the film seriously. He wanted an introspective and enigmatic performance from Van Damme, which showed a little more emotional depth than we’d previously seen. For the most part, he delivers. Additionally, we get fast and frantic car and foot chases, almost preceding the likes of Ronin and Bourne (minus the shaky cam). The story is engaging enough and Natasha Henstridge is an excellent co-star. It’s a film with proper direction, and a touch of class, but never ranks that high with too many fans. Maybe because there isn’t a slow-motion helicopter kick filmed from five slow-motion angles.
7 – Double Impact
If there’s one thing better than having Van Damme in a film, it’s having two Van Dammes for the price of one. The Belgian legend did it a few times throughout his career, but never more prominently than in his role as twins Chad and Alex in Double Impact. It’s silly, it’s cheesy, but this ode to Hong Kong action movies (which sees the twin Dammes taking down the baddies in Hong Kong) is great fun.
Van Damme’s double act is enjoyable, with the grizzled and hard-bitten Hong Kong gangster, and his cosmopolitan (and ragingly camp) brother, who was taken to California when they were separated at birth, markedly different. Director Sheldon Lettich always knew how to get the best out of Van Damme physically and lens him appropriately. The action is great and the roster of bad guys is impressive with Alan Scarfe, Phillip Chan, the great Cory Everson, and the inimitable Bolo Yeung.
6 – Timecop
Rogue criminals are time-traveling. The only ones who can stop them from causing irreversible damage to the time-space continuum are Timecops. Van Damme is an MF Timecop. A plot that’s holier than a slab of Emmenthal, but loaded with action and a scenery chomping villain (Ron Silver) is the perfect setup for some peak-era Van Dammage.
In fairness, whilst the time travel plot brings inevitable head-scratching paradoxes, it’s no more guilty than most other time travel-based films. In fact, it’s positively Hawking-level logic in comparison to recent time travel arcs in the MCU. Van Damme had his biggest hit here and his first team-up with Peter Hyams. It remains their best collab and just an all-around rollickingly fun sci-fi actioner. Ron Silver’s villain is what really takes this up a notch.
5 – JCVD
Under the Scorsese benchmark of what one would consider ‘cinema,’ this is far and away Van Damme’s best ‘film.’ It’s a clever dissection of celebrities in decline. Van Damme plays a weary and torn-down variation of himself, loaded with hound dog expressions and pathos. The film gleefully riffs on Van Damme’s tropes and career, whilst still ensuring that his fandom isn’t a prerequisite for watching.
Much like the recent Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent with Nic Cage as himself, this one has the perfect blend of reverence and ‘character.’ Cage was playing a character just as Van Damme is, and thrust into an unlikely situation. It’s Van Damme’s greatest acting performance in arguably his most challenging role. He’s played himself since but it feels too ironic, too winky. This sees him as a genuine character on screen before he breaks out for an honest fourth wall-breaking confessional that proves a show-stopping moment. It could and probably should have redefined him as an actor, but a shift into becoming a character actor never came. Still, this doesn’t quite define Van Damme in the same way as his peak-era movies and iconic on-screen trademarks do.
4 – Lionheart
Van Damme’s exotic kickboxing movies which saw him fighting opponents in Hong Kong and Thailand tournaments proved hugely popular. So it felt like a natural progression to see Van Damme bring the fights to the mean streets of L.A. Here, Van Damme is a legionnaire who deserts his station after hearing the news that his brother is gravely injured. He’s being tracked by agents to bring him to justice for going absent without leave.
Once in the US he needs money quickly and happens upon (as you do) an underground street fight. He meets a fight bookie, and the film kicks off, with Joshua (Harrison Page) connecting Leon (Van Damme) with a series of brawls for money. He soon encounters the local Queenpin of the circuit, all whilst trying to save money for the family of his recently deceased brother (he never made it back in time). Of all of Van Damme’s tournament-centric films, Lionheart is the most engaging on a dramatic level. Okay, it’s not Casablanca by any stretch but there’s sincerity, Van Damme is an affably good-hearted hero, and Harrison Page is superb. The fights a great and the score has one of Van Damme’s best orchestral themes.
3 – Universal Soldier
Sure, a Van Damme by himself is good and a Van Damme on double duties is better, but how do you top 1-2 Van Dammes? You throw in a rival action icon as his nemesis pugilist. Universal Soldier sees a rising Van Damme up against a Dolph Lundgren who’d struggled to make the best of his Rocky IV fame. You might say on his way down. They meet in the middle in a sci-fi action opus that still remains Roland Emmerich’s best work, and a last film not preoccupied with CGI-driven spectacle. The action has scale, the film has some humour laced within it, and the clash of two action titans doesn’t disappoint.
Van Damme is endearingly puppy dog here as the reanimated soldier who defies his programming but effectively becomes almost childlike in the realities of existence. Lundgren meanwhile also defies his, but returns to being a soldier with a screw loose, following their last encounters at the tail end of Nam. Andrew Scott (Lundgren) is convinced Luc (JCVD) is a traitor who must be killed. Lundgren does steal the show, reveling in the villainy, but in the end, Van Damme rode the box office success more effectively, and ultimately was the star attraction.
2 – Bloodsport
I don’t think anything quite defines Van Damme as much as Bloodsport does. It’s his most iconic film and it effectively birthed every staple you expected in Van Damme’s glory years. It’s very much a product of its time, laden with delightful 80s cheese. The clothes, the haircuts, the outlandish plot (based on the outlandish claims of the one and only Frank Dux), and best of all the soundtrack and score.
Van Damme has his first leading role here (having previously popped up in walk-ons or as a villain) and he brims with star power that overcomes the raw, occasionally awkward acting. Still, he ultimately feels believable in the role and is a physical dynamo. There hadn’t been anything or anyone like Bloodsport and Van Damme. The dazzling jumping kicks, the slow motion, the graceful and balletic way he could fight and pose in perfect cohesion. Many tried to imitate him after but no one could match what Van Damme could do on screen. Many might claim Bloodsport is Van Damme’s best, as it his most undeniably Van Dammish but it’s a close two for me. I’m off to listen to Steal the Night by Michael Bishop…
1 – Hard Target
Jean-Claude Van Damme and John Woo. It was a match made in heaven. This wasn’t the mercurial Woo coming over to Hollywood past his best. He’d just peaked. He was on a high after Hard Boiled. Van Damme was instrumental in bringing him over too. It’s simple. Take The Most Dangerous Game and put Van Damme, with as oily a mullet as you’ll ever see, into it. Then get John Woo to go full tilt into a perfect blend of chaotic, squib-filled shootouts, stunts, and fight sequences.
Hard Target is an insane action film with expertly crafted action. Woo just knows how to perfectly capture Van Damme’s on-screen martial arts too. No one has captured the gamut of Van Damme trademark kicks as well as Woo, not even Lettich. Additionally, this brought Van Damme squarely into the world of two-fisted gunplay. He’d had a warmup in Double Impact but this one goes full tilt. It’s action-packed. Hard Target isn’t just Van Damme’s best, it’s one of the best of the decade, sorely underrated on release. It did good business but it still took Van Damme fans a little time to warm entirely to it (myself included) with its distinct style and a very different look to the man himself.
A great score and beautiful cinematography help complement Woo’s dazzling set pieces. Van Damme is cool, and stoic with a certain gallic charm as Chance Boudreaux. Every great action film needs a great villain and here we get a double whammy with Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo making a fierce pairing. No Hollywood film has captured the high-action, pyrotechnical insanity of golden era Hong Kong gun play anything like Hard Target did. Of course having one of the best Hong Kong exponents in that, with John Woo, is a key reason, but additionally, they go all out with the on-screen, all-practical carnage, the likes of which we just never see in the CGI age.
SEE ALSO: The Essential 90s Action Movies
That’s it for our Van Damme top ten. A few also-rans nearly made the list, with Sudden Death, Universal Soldier: Regeneration (but for Van Damme’s limited screentime), Wake of Death, and In Hell. What are your favourite Van Damme films? 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 out in 2022/2023, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.