Bloodsport and the Films of Jean-Claude Van Damme: 30 Years of Van Dammage

Today is the 30th anniversary of the movie that made Jean-Claude Van Damme a star. In limited release at least. It must’ve been an arthouse movie until it went wide in April. I take IMDB’s word for it because I didn’t see Bloodsport until after I rented Kickboxer on video. I taped Bloodsport off HBO and watched it over and over again. Van Damme had played villains in Black Eagle and No Retreat No Surrender but Bloodsport introduced the action hero who would fill the gaps between Arnold and Stallone movies.

Bloodsport is the supposedly true story of Frank Dux, who competed in the underground Kumite. His story has been debunked but as they say, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. It is a great mythology. A westerner earns the respect of a martial arts master as a child. Now as a military officer he goes AWOL to do his master proud. It makes a great story of a stranger in a foreign land, and they build up the brutality of the bloodsport as the deadliest game around.

It’s basically like if the tournament at the end of Karate Kid was the whole movie and was rated R and the losers died. I realized we don’t really get a sense of the tournament bracket. We just watch a series of fights and take their word for it when it’s time to fight the champ Chong Li (Bolo Yeung). Dux’s training is as compelling to watch as any of the fighting. Van Damme does no less than six splits in this movie, showing his focus and concentration.

Many of the other fighters are racist caricatures, especially Arabs (not played by Arab actors). It is a Cannon film after all but hey, it gives some screen time to African fighting arts. Equally notable is Dux’s bromance with Jackson (Donald Gibb). The stats of all of Dux’s Kumite records in the final text seem like they may have been overselling it.

Van Damme’s next movie, Kickboxer, was also fun. There’s less fighting because it’s more of a training movie. Had I known more about 36th Chamber of Shaolin back then I might have better appreciated Kurt Sloane (Van Damme)’s journey, but I still liked the splits, kicks and drunk dancing. They dip their fists in glass for the final fight!

Movies like Cyborg and Death Warrant were forgettable. Moving from fight movies to bigger narratives would work but they’d have to get better than a generic undercover cop/prison movie or low budget science fiction. Lionheart was a solid return to fight tournament formula.

Double Impact was the first studio quality Van Damme movie and the first case of double Van Dammage. He played twins separated at birth. It sure is good that the twins raised in the U.S. and Hong Kong both trained in kickboxing and learned to speak with Belgian accents. Van Damme is great as both and the split screens are well filmed with old school film techniques. This is a fun one with international locations and big explosions. Some unfortunate homophobia left over from the ‘80s and some rapiness. but it’s actually less rapey than Kickboxer, so progress?

Universal Soldier was my first theatrical Van Damme. While it didn’t quite achieve the goals of another Carolco summer event, it eventually became Van Damme’s first franchise (that he continued to star in. Bloodsport went on without him and he didn’t return to Kickboxer until the reboot). I loved the gravitas of the stars of the movie killing each other before the opening titles and wrote about Unisol in full for its 25th anniversary.

Nowhere to Run was Van Damme’s attempt to show a dramatic side. It’s respectable but works best as a solid pre-summer action offering. It’s a “stranger comes to town” movie where he helps a family fight corrupt developers but can’t escape his own past. It celebrated its 25th anniversary January 15.

Hard Target brought John Woo to Hollywood and began a productive tradition of Van Damme working with Hong Kong directors. Woo directs an explosive Most Dangerous Game where Van Damme stands up on a motorcycle and bites a snake! It’s 25th anniversary is this summer so maybe I’ll go in depth.

Timecop was Van Damme’s biggest hit and seems to be his most beloved from people I talk to. It was still far more limited than any sci-fi movie Arnold made. The future isn’t very futuristic. They just put weird armor on cars. There’s very limited historical dressing as the story keeps things in the present. Most sets are generic warehouses. Timecop does have double Van Dammage, as his past and future selves in the same scene.

It used to really annoy me that for all the potential of the Timecop premise, the main story takes place now (or then in 1994). They can go anywhere in history, but they chose now. Looking back 1994 is a period piece. I also called bullshit on the time travel rules where you can’t touch your younger self. It’s not same matter if you’re 10 years older. Your molecules change by the second. However now that too is endearingly kitschy.

I have always had a soft spot for Street Fighter. It’s not really an accurate adaptation of the game (there’s no fighting tournament), but it’s got so much heart. The costumes look like the game brought to life and all the actors sincerely try to embody the characters. Raul Julia especially is magnificently hammy. I still quote “for me it was Tuesday.” And I love that it ends on a freeze frame. The title for first great video game movie is sill on the table but I will always love Street Fighter.

Sudden Death caught the tail end of the “Die Hard in a…” movement but it’s one of my favorites. Die Hard in a hockey arena just did everything one could with that premise including fighting the mascot and having Van Damme play goalie!

The Quest was Van Damme’s directorial debut. Another tournament movie co-credited to Frank Dux, I enjoyed seeing the various fighting styles (there’s everything from a sumo to more acrobatic ones). I guess Muay Thai was new to audiences in 1996, and The Quest made no impression so I still thought I saw it for the first time when Tony Jaa came out. Now that I’m more familiar with it, Van Damme actually adapted Muay Thai nicely with his own distinct style. It’s more melodrama than Van Damme usually plays with him leading a pack of street urchin kids at the beginning. It doesn’t work but it’s sort of sweet he wanted to make a family movie. When it comes down to it, it’s still a showcase for martial artists and there are a lot of great athletes and performers in the fight montages.

Maximum Risk was Van Damme’s second Hong Kong director collaboration, with Ringo Lam. There’s technically double Van Dammes because he plays twins again, but one dies before they ever meet. I thought Van Damme was good in the dramatic scenes mourning the brother he never knew, and the action was cool.

Double Team was a pure delight. Less noteworthy for the team-up with Dennis Rodman, his team-up with director Tsui Hark showed that Van Damme had the agility to do true Hong Kong fight scenes (had I seen No Retreat before I’d already know that.) Double Team had the absurd Hong Kong sensibility that Americans just never accepted. Americans need things to make sense. I need more Coke machines in the Coliseum.

Knock Off was a disappointing followup. With Tsui Hark again, Knock Off has great ideas like the rickshaw race and sliding shipping containers, but never has time to develop those sequences as fully as they could’ve been realized.

Legionnaire was Van Damme’s first straight to video movie. It was intended to be theatrical so has those production values, but you can see why they cut their losses. As it’s not really a fight movie it doesn’t play to Van Damme’s strengths.

Universal Soldier: The Return was supposed to be Van Damme’s comeback. I don’t think Universal Soldier was ever a well known enough brand for it to spark interest. I enjoyed seeing it as a dumb fight movie, even if it played loose with the mythology. (You can’t reverse the process of being a Universal Soldier! The process is dying!)

Some of Van Damme’s early straight to video movies were rough and generic. Even though Replicant had double Van Dammage, it doesn’t hold up against Double Impact a decade earlier, but he did some good work with Isaac Florentine, John Hyams and Ernie Barbarash. He could still fight and those directors did interesting things within the confines they were given.

JCVD should’ve been more of a breakthrough. It’s highly regarded among those who’ve seen it. It lets Van Damme give his best, most vulnerable performance, probably because it’s in his own language. He never really got comfortable with English. Plus it’s a fourth wall breaking New Wave meta movie.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration – I addressed the Unisol sequels in my Unisol anniversary piece, but the idea that Luc Devereaux has lived as a Unisol for 20 years (process re-reversed?) gave his performance weight and still awesome fights.

In The Expendables 2, Van Damme was the best part of this franchise as a magnificent villain named Vilain. He’s just having so much fun.

In Universal Day of Reckoning, Van Damme passes the Unisol torch to Scott Adkins. Luc’s role is kind of a one note mopey antagonist, but he shows up, and like another franchise said, you either die a hero or live (undead) long enough to become the villain. I’m surprised the Universal Soldier movies never had double Van Dammage. You’d think he’d face his own clone, but that was Replicant.

Okay, Welcome to the Jungle wouldn’t pass muster as a theatrical movie but as DTV goes its fun to see Van Damme ham it up and make fun of himself. He plays a survival instructor whose weekend guiding a corporate retreat goes wrong. He even does the Bloodsport face.

By Pound of Flesh, Van Damme is on a roll again. He gets his kidney stolen and goes after the thieves to get it back, still kicking and splitting on painkillers.

Kickboxer: Vengeance and Kickboxer: Retaliation were smart to get Van Damme to play the role of the trainer, and it’s not a vanity cameo. Van Damme had a substantial role in each film and still had some ferocious fights. Alain Moussi is an incredible martial artist to carry on though, and he does the Kickboxer dance beautifully.

Felip Van Damme, totally different

Finally, Jean-Claude Van Johnson, Van Damme’s Amazon comedy only got one season but it was a fun six episodes of Van Damme playing himself. It never quite kept up the bite of the pilot. Perhaps if it had, we’d have season two. Season one gave us a lot though including ridiculous splits and the first ever case of triple Van Dammage. Van Damme fulfilled his destiny to be a magnificent ham on this show.

30 years of Jean-Claude Van Damme shows him an adaptable performer. The goal may have been to stay at the studio level, but studios stopped making those kinds of movies so he adapted to Hong Kong, adapted to new directors in the burgeoning VOD/DTV markets, adapted to comedy, and took on dramatic or mentor roles. I hope Van Damme can keep kicking another 30 years.

Written by
Fred Topel also known as Franchise Fred has been an entertainment journalist since 1999 and specializes in writing about film, television and video games. Fred has written for several outlets including, CraveOnline, and Rotten Tomatoes among others. His favorite films include Toy Story 2, The Rock, Face/Off, True Lies, Labyrinth, The Big Hit, Michael Moore's The Big One, and Casablanca. We are very lucky and excited to have Fred as part of the We Live Entertainment team. Follow him on Twitter @FranchiseFred and @FredTopel

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