Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Jean-Claude Van Damme Edition - The Part-Time Critic

Monday, May 25, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Jean-Claude Van Damme Edition

From the ages of eight to fifteen, Jean-Claude Van Damme was one of my favorite movie stars. I can’t remember when I first saw his 1988 film Bloodsport, but it was everything I wanted in a film; a young American boy is trained in martial-arts by a master and grows up to defeat everyone in an underground fighting tournament with fighters from all over the world. While I was allowed to watch his popular follow-up Kickboxer, he made a lot of R-rated films I only saw glimpses of before my parents shut it down. Despite not experiencing all of his work, I nurtured my fan boy love for Van Damme on just a couple of films. However, sometime around 1995 or so, Van Damme no longer interested me and it kinda happened overnight. Why? I kind a liked his Die Hard-light 1995 film Sudden Death, but it was 1996’s horrible The Quest (that I went to the theaters to see) that demonstrated to me why Van Damme just wasn't going cut it anymore. To use a pun for analysis– I realized he was a one-kick pony. 

There are likely many factors for why Van Damme fell out of this teen boy’s favor (tastes changing, quality of his movies changing, etc.), but the single major factor was Jackie Chan. After watching the athleticism, speed, and skill of Jackie Chan, Van Damme just couldn’t compete. Chan's fight's were like feasts and Van Damme's only gave a few meaty morsels. The difference to me was night and day. It seems most of the world agreed, because it wasn’t long before Hollywood and Van Damme in particular began imitating Hong Kong action cinema…or in Van Damme’s case, not just imitating but adopting wholesale by hiring their directors. I'll flesh out that thought more in the commentary below.

So what are Van Damme’s best action sequences? This proved a tougher task than you would imagine for two reasons: First, he doesn’t have a lot of great sequences (that stand alone) and second, those few great sequences are not his most iconic ones; meaning, his "Best" list lacks representation of his most popular movies. So what I’ve done is put together two lists; a most definitive fight scenes and best fight scenes. I feel like more people will understand and connect with the definitive list because while those fights best encapsulate what originally made Jean-Claude Van Damme such a big star and hero. Also, it will give me a place to share all the random commentary I want to share after re-watching them. My standard "Best Action Scene" list will be what I think are his objectively best sequences. I re-watched nearly every action sequence Van Damme created, but I’ll be honest, I drew the line at most of his direct-to-DVD films in the 2000’s-2010’s. They are mostly missing here. I’ll start with the most definitive list.

Top 5 Definitive Action Scenes:
Watch these Scenes and You'll Know Van Damme
5. “Van Damme's Enters Chernobyl: One Take Shootout and Knife Fights” -Universal Soldier: Regeneration (Link)
- This sequence comes from the straight to DVD film Universal Soldier: Regeneration. At this point in Van Damme’s career, he’s not starring in any major action films and mostly taking legacy/cameo roles. It was sometime around 1993, probably accelerated and confirmed by the debacle of 1994’s Street Fighter, that Van Damme made a conscious decision to move away from the typical “Van Damme” film and try appeal to a broader audience. Who knows whether this was the choice of Van Damme or Hollywood producers, but it must have been a blow to his pride. The importance of that decision means that since 1993, Van Damme no longer was setting any action trends, he followed them. 

In this sequence you see the best Van Damme does the gritty realism "Krav Maga/UFC" trend that resulted primarily from the Bourne series. In this sequence he is working with a strong action director and we get a “one take” shootout in an abandoned building that wouldn’t be out of place in John Wick. It’s followed by a really strong knife fight sequence that is perhaps the best extended choreography Van Damme has ever given to film.

4. “Finale: Carnival Warehouse Shootout” -Hard Target (Link)
-In 1993, Van Damme was looking to stretch his appeal and the legendary Hong Kong action director John Woo was looking to crossover into American films. Van Damme and John Woo collaborated here to mixed results. By my calculation, this was the first of Van Damme’s purposeful attempts to get outside his action wheelhouse (I don’t count the first Universal Soldier). His objectively best looking/edited sequences came from this film and I credit John Woo for that. Unfortunately, it was a stinker of a story. Bonus - look at how Woo films Van Damme's traditional action sequence HERE. It's the best those moves have ever looked.

I can see what Woo was intending for Van Damme, “Let’s turn him into a Chow Yun-Fat but with better kicking!” He was mostly correct – you could more easily turn Van Damme into a cool gunman that can also fight if needed rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, Van Damme lacked the "cool and smooth" presence of Chow Yun-Fat and his character never clicked. When you watch this sequence, you can see Woo re-using some of the ideas and stunts from the hospital shootout of Hard-Boiled. It’s great film-making and probably Van Damme’s best objective sequence (spoiler!), but it’s still lacking something with him as the star. Van Damme would use other Hong Kong cinema directors like Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark (who tried turning him into a low-rent Donnie Yen in 1997's Double Team) – but it also felt like imitation rather than the genuine thing. Still, watch this sequence to see Van Damme do "Hong Kong action."

3. “Home Ambush Fight Leads to the Splits on the Counter” -Timecop (Link
- Timecop represents Van Damme’s biggest move away from a traditional martial arts/action film and into a more traditional Hollywood blockbuster. I would argue that along with 1992's Universal Soldier this was his science fiction action in the Arnold Schwarzenegger mold play. It's nice to see him working with a competent director and a decent budget and screenplay, also a campy and fun Ron Silver. This sequence isn’t especially great, but it’s definitive in that it highlights some of the qualities of a “Van Damme” action sequence and merges them with the higher production capabilities of a major science fiction action blockbuster. The most memorable and iconic moment here is Van Damme (in his short shorts of course) jumping up onto the counter-top doing the splits to evade a taser being fired into water on the floor. If Van Damme is in a movie and he doesn’t do the splits, was “Van Damme” actually in the movie?

2. “Thai Bar Drunk Dancing and Fighting” -Kickboxer (Link
- You’ve probably seen a gif of this dancing sequence at some point in your lifetime. If you haven't, stop reading and just watch the scene first. It's glorious. It’s instantly recognizable and must have been cringy, to all but those who struggle with self-awareness, even when it was released. It’s a sequence that comes from 1989’s Kickboxer, a popular follow-up to Van Damme's breakthrough Bloodsport and one of the two main films that nurtured my childhood love for him. This sequence illustrates everything you need to know about how Jean Claude Van Damme saw himself as a martial artist and movie star in the late 80's/early 90's: he was a good looking man and he would have told you he was. It’s one of the only times I can think of where a filmmaker had two women trying to dance sexy only to highlight the male figure as the better and sexier dancer! To be fair, I think Van Damme knew his looks were one of the few "assets" that separated him from other martial artists.

He dances this way of course because he’s drunk and it’s his master’s way of testing and training him. After dancing with the women in the bar, Van Damme takes out all the jealous men with ease in classic Van Damme fashion. We laugh at this sequence today not because of the humor of the actual story beat, but because it’s the epitome of Van Damme’s ego on display: He’s a better dancer, a better fighter, and a sexier man than you and doesn’t that make you jealous? If you’ve seen this sequence, then you have a good insight into one of the core limitations of Van Damme, his narcissistic ego. It's also a core insight into his appeal, who wouldn't want to be thought of that way?

1. “Finale Fight: Frank Dux vs. Chong Li (Bolo)” -Bloodsport (Link)
- Van Damme's other core limitation, and this is the one that put a true glass ceiling on his stardom, is that he’s only got about three really good cinematic fighting moves and that’s about it. He can do the splits, his high kick looks great and goes extremely vertical (like a vertical splits), and his jumping roundhouse where he does the splits; if you think about it, that’s essentially three variations on the splits. Outside of those moves, Van Damme is a really pedestrian action star.

So how did he get around those two core limitations? Look no further than his most definitive fight, the finale from Bloodsport. I believe that if you watch this fight, you have seen the best that Van Damme has to offer. You see his truest form. Rather than use dynamic back and forth choreography that highlighted a full range of fighting skills and athleticism and expose Van Damme's limits, this sequence wisely chooses to focus on dramatic spectacle with a very limited moveset. In essence, Van Damme gets around his limitations by turning this finale fight into a classic good vs. evil 1980's WWF wrestling matchup.

The villain here is Chong Li, played by action legend Bolo Yeung, and Van Damme’s Frank Dux is not just fighting to win the tournament, not just fighting to keep his life, but fighting to avenge his friend who was put in the hospital by the remorseless Chong Li (who killed a guy last tournament and “just watched him die”). In the WWE analogy, Van Damme is Hulk Hogan, the pure and good babyface representing America, and Chong Li is the evil villain representing the foreign and remorseless threat. Like in those WWF matchups, it wasn’t necessarily about skill, it was only about momentum and the eventual dramatic win.

At first, the villain always gets the upper hand and puts our good guy on his back foot – it doesn’t matter that the action is limited and Van Damme isn’t really blocking anything, it’s more about operatic storytelling here. Eventually our good guy fights back and takes the lead forcing the villain to resort to his most dastardly deed to gain the upper hand, in this case, it’s throwing the chalk in Van Damme’s eyes. Van Damme demonstrates his worthiness by taking the punishment and calling upon his training and overcoming the evil of the villain. We’ve waited long enough and we are now ready and primed for the finishing moves, the most interesting move our fighter has.  We are treated to Van Damme's gorgeous and big spinning split kicks set to wonderful 80’s snyth and the glorious cheesiness of the moment comes to a satisfying (in a true guilty pleasure way) conclusion.

Van Damme got around his limitations by making sequences like this finale against Chong Li become classic WWF style matches where his one true standout move would become the finisher everyone waited for. Unfortunately for Van Damme, that only worked for a while. He did the same thing in movies like Kickboxer and Lionheart all the way up through the early 90’s to diminishing returns. The pinnacle "Van Damme" ego and style is probably Double Impact featuring two Van Damme's for double the ego. That’s when he made the choice to appeal to a broader range of fans through different styles. Unfortunately, while he adopted the Die Hard/Sci-Fi Action/Hong Kong/Bourne trends, he always felt second rate in them.

Young Kyle was so into Bloodsport because it was the most essential and definitive expression of Van Damme’s best qualities packaged in an operatic good vs evil tale. As I grew older and demanded more from my film actions, Van Damme just couldn’t cut it. When he stepped outside his wheelhouse, he was just another limited action star. I think he might have been remembered better if he was able to find a television series, kinda like Chuck Norris did with Walker Texas Ranger, where he only ever had to do a couple of kicks each episode to satisfy his audience. In television, where formula can be repeated episode after episode, is where this winning Bloodsport formula could have persisted. Who knows? Still, I’m grateful for the joy I got as a kid.

I think you’ve gotten a good idea of my thoughts on Van Damme by, so I’m gonna present what I think are the objectively best Van Damme sequences below without commentary. 

Top 20 Best Action Scenes
Double Team (1997) - IMDb
20. “Finale Fight: Frank Dux vs. Chong Li (Bolo)” -Bloodsport
19. “Finale: Final Fight with Atilla for All the Money” -Lionheart
18. “Rickshaw Competition leads to a Shootout in the Supermarket” -Knock Off
17. “Finale: Coliseum Showdown with Mines and Tigers” -Double Team
16. “Escaping Angry Workers in a Knockoff Storehouse” -Knock Off
15. “Home Ambush Fight Leads to the Splits on the Counter” -Timecop
14. “Van Damme vs. Arlovski” -Universal Soldier: Regeneration
13. “Hotel Fight: Van Dumme vs Gunman and Foot Knife Man” -Double Team
12. “Boxing Ring Fight: Playing the Crazy Russian” -No Retreat, No Surrender
11. “Roughing Up Some Thugs Who are Harassing a Lady” -Hard Target

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10. “Finale: Tong Po and Van Damme Fight” -Kickboxer
9. “Van Damme vs. Stallone” -The Expendables 2
8. “Van Damme vs. Icey the Penguin Mascot in a Kitchen Brawl” -Sudden Death
7. “French Quarter Chase & Shootout Ends on the Highway” -Hard Target
6. “Finale: Slip-sliding Shootout on a Cargo Ship” -Knock Off

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5. “Van Damme vs. Dolph Lundgren” -Universal Soldier: Regeneration
4. “Finale: Van Damme vs. Michael Jai White” -Universal Soldier: The Return
3. “Machete Fight: Van Damme vs. Adkins” -Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
2. “Van Damme's Enters Chernobyl: One Take Shootout and Knife Fights” -Universal Soldier: Regeneration
1. “Finale: Carnival Warehouse Shootout” -Hard Target

Thanks for reading. Feel free to share your thoughts.

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