Yesterday marked the birthday of a close personal friend of mine, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Jean-Claude and I have never met, but I know him better than I know my own wife. Occasionally, my wife will do something that surprises me. Over the course of 33 movies, Jean-Claude Van Damme has never surprised me. Apart from some random drunk disco dancing in Kickboxer, our relationship has been entirely predictable.
To celebrate the occasion of his 47th birthday, I sat down with five of his movies I'd never seen, looking forward to a long evening of maximum Van Dammage. It turns out that I'd seen them all. Three of them I'd seen twice. And that's the magic of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Whether he's playing a character named Chance Boudreux, Jack Robideaux, Edward Garrotte, William Guile, Phillip Sauvage, or Gibson Rickenbacker, he's always the same. Some action heroes need a gimmick to stand out. They need quips, a catchphrase, a bullwhip, or a .44 Magnum, but not Jean-Claude. He doesn't stand out at all. He's like the wallpaper.
This is due to his natural limitations. His physical limitations he's overcome through hard work. Jean-Claude Van Damme started out in life as a baby, which was tremendously frustrating for him because babies are, by their very nature, skinny and weak. In adolescence, a thick pair of enormous glasses were added to the equation, and in photos of him at this age he looks like an annoyed duck. Finally, his dad couldn't take it anymore and enrolled him in karate classes. Jean-Claude trained fanatically, took up bodybuilding, and then, realizing that he would never be as big as the other karate students, he trumped them by becoming more flexible, and he took up ballet.
Moving to Los Angeles in 1982, he landed the occasional role frugging in the background of Breakin', or billed as "Very Gay Karate Man" in Monaco Forever, but mostly, for six years, he tried very hard to be noticed. Finally, he wormed his way into the offices of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the tasteless producers behind exploitation outfit Cannon Films, and he showed them his balletic kicks and deep splits. They, being greedy and unatheletic, were impressed enough to show him the script for Bloodsport, which wound up being his first starring role. This story always amazes me—who knew that Bloodsport had a script? It went on to gross $35 million on a tiny budget—and the rest, as they say, is repetition. Bloodsport was followed by Kickboxer, which was followed by Cyborg, which was followed by Death Warrant and Lionheart and so on, a slew of cheesy exploitation flicks that anyone could watch and enjoy. Well, maybe not Cyborg. No one should watch Cyborg.
Jean-Claude's other limitation, however, has turned out to be impossible to overcome: He can't act. If that sounds judgmental, then I suggest you watch Universal Soldier, a movie in which both he and Dolph Lundgren play cybernetically enhanced, reanimated corpses. You'd think this was the perfect showcase for Jean-Claude Van Damme, but watching him pit his acting ability against Lundgren's is like watching one of Jerry's Kids get in the ring with Mike Tyson. Even as a zombified killing machine, Jean-Claude is clearly out of his depth.
But he's managed to do a lot with a little. Jean-Claude has three expressions: worried, charming, and doing a split. Of the three, doing a split is the most convincing. Getting crucified in Cyborg? Worried. Disposing of a bomb that could blow up a sacred Muslim shrine and start a jihad in The Order? Really worried. Meeting a spunky lady reporter in any number of movies? Charming. Confronting the hitmen who killed his wife? Do a split.
For a lot of actors, not being able to act would be an obstacle, but Jean-Claude has transformed it into his trademark. Acting? Acting is for weirdos like Forest Whitaker (Bloodsport), Kylie Minogue (Street Fighter), or Kieran Culkin (Nowhere to Run). Jean-Claude is just a normal, average guy, you know? When he fights, he likes to head-butt his opponents and kick them in the nuts, the way normal people fight. His love interests don't look like supermodels or even actresses, they look like the gals you see at commuter bars packing away Bloody Marys and waiting for the 6:45 to Hackensack. In Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, USA Today is the paper of record and foreign countries are where the police are corrupt and you get hassled by immigration. He may be from Belgium, but in his movies, he's an All-American Guy.
And it's not just an act he puts on for his movies. Faced with international fame and earnings in the millions before he was 30 years old, Van Damme acted exactly the way any average person would act when confronted with sudden wealth and fame: like a jackass. He snorted a mountain of coke, he got married five times, he was caught on tape drunk and stripping on a public street. He's disarmingly frank about all this, going on talk shows and saying that he can't remember being in Hong Kong to shoot Knock Off with Rob Schneider because he was coked to the gills. He makes it seem normal. Even now that he's given up the cocaine, he still insists on behaving the way, say, your dad would behave if he went on television on a regular basis and got interviewed continuously. He's a celebrity who's never hired a publicist or an image handler because he figures, stubbornly, that he can do it himself. The result is that he gives interviews where he drops bon mots like, "A cookie has no spirit because it is just a cookie. But before that it was milk and eggs. And in the eggs there is a potential life." And when he hugs pretty television hostesses, he sometimes pops an embarrassing on-camera erection. He loves animals, hates bullfighting, and all of this is completely and extremely normal. Wanting to be governor of California? That's weird.
The only thing Van Damme does in his movies that isn't normal is take his clothes off. A lot. Most people don't like to see themselves naked, but Jean-Claude has made gratuitous nudity an important part of his career. Whether he's playing a serial killer, a time-traveling cop, an off-duty firefighter, a day laborer, or a member of the French Foreign Legion, he always manages to wind up in situations that require him to bare his muscular bottom. It's an impressive posterior, as firm, white, and round as two uncooked turkeys. But, like the Tree of Wisdom in the Garden of Eden, or a pole dancer at Scores, you can look but you can't touch. If you taste the fruits of Van Damme, it's only a matter of minutes before a bad guy kills you. Jean-Claude's wives and girlfriends come with expiration dates stamped on their foreheads, and the clock starts ticking the minute he says, "I love you."
It's been almost 10 years since one of Jean-Claude's movies opened theatrically in America; the 13 he's released since 1998 have gone straight to video. But just when it looks like he's all washed up, he's embracing the greatest role of his career: himself. The movie is called J.C.V.D. in J.C.V.D., and six minutes of footage has been released on the Internet. In it, a casting session for a Jean-Claude Van Damme biopic is in progress when it's interrupted by the man himself. "So you're making a movie about me and you don't bother to let me know?" he sulks. In a squeamish manner that has the whiff of Ricky Gervais, he breaks up the casting session ("So what's it going to talk about, your Van Damme movie of which Van Damme is not aware? Painful divorces? Drug problems?"), and by the end, he's insisting that he'll play the role himself, telling the casting director to call his bosses. "Just tell 'em you got Van Damme," he smiles. "I'm sure they'll be thrilled," the casting director deadpans.
The strangest thing about this footage is that it's funny. Not funny in the way that Van Damme having a monologue with a moth in a Russian prison who turns into the ghost of his dead wife during In Hell is funny, but funny on purpose. Sure, Robert De Niro worked as a cab driver for three months to appear in Taxi Driver, but Jean-Claude Van Damme spent 19 years becoming a washed-up action-movie star in order to convincingly portray a washed-up action-movie star. I have to accept the fact that, years after his weird dance in Kickboxer, he's surprised me for a second time. He's getting to be more and more like my wife every day.