Last Action Hero: Appreciating Jean Claude Van Damme

Some of you may have noticed, but for me it’s definitely been an odd year in terms of the films I have been enjoying and what I have been looking for within cinema. From what little I know of my reputation, I am aware that I am known for my tastes frequently changing in art and my focus on films this year certainly adds to that a great deal. I started the year off in an odd stage of not-quite-burnout, still watching films but only being lazy with my selections and swallowing up Netflix comedy after Netflix comedy like the junk food that it is. My cinematic dopamine receptors were in tatters, I was watching average film after average film to the point that when I saw something that could just be classified as decent, it felt like a huge improvement, like a small helping of spice in the midst of a diet of rice.

Among the last few of these films was the John Woo and Van Damme collaboration, Hard Target. Woo’s typical bombastic style won me over completely, right there and then, reminding me of the other works of his that I had seen (his most famous films primarily: I loved Face/Off and Hard Boiled especially) and yet my main focus throughout was the incredible on screen charisma of the star, Van Damme. Though the film is absolutely ridiculous, Van Damme fits in to the world that Woo has created perfectly. For Woo’s first American film, it laid the foundations of the second half of his career which led to some of his best (okay, and worst! I admit it) work. 

There are Action Directors and Then There's John Woo
Hard Target

However, maintaining focus on Van Damme, after seeing Hard Target I remembered that I had been impressed by Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning which I had seen a few years ago and could only remember very small parts of. Thankfully, it was pretty easy to find, and I managed to track down copies of the three films that preceded it with some time and patience too. The first of the series, simply titled Universal Soldier, was especially surprising. Roland Emmerich is not exactly my definition of a great director – for me, he is all of the worst traits of Michael Bay and none of the more exciting or interesting ones boiled down, but the first Universal Soldier is genuinely pretty fantastic, even if it so clearly takes most of its inspiration from the first and second Terminator films. It’s a stunningly breezy action film (with comic elements) that boasts some incredible set-pieces and maybe one of Van Damme’s more interesting performances as he is more so relying on puppy dog eyes than his fighting ability. It’s fascinating. Unfortunately, the second film is almost a complete waste of time – a real dumpster fire, lacking the entertainment and the action of the first as well as most of the good qualities of cinema in general. But, to counteract that, director John Hyams revived the franchise some years later.

The first feature film that John Hyams, son of Peter Hyams who also made many films with Van Damme including Sudden Death which I am aching to see, was Universal Soldier: Regeneration. I had been introduced to John Hyam’s work when I saw his latest film Alone, a survivalist horror film with a central cat and mouse game that is excellent. It seems almost impossible to try to describe the stark difference between Regeneration and the two which came before it, as Regeneration goes in the completely opposite direction, trading away puppy-dog eyed Luc Deveraux from the first two films and bringing back Dolph Lundgren in a new setting and under a new style, one of an eerie futuristic realism and brutality. The action in this film is *so* sharp and so mean, it’s bleak and unforgiving, but that’s exactly what this series needed. It also introduces martial artist and actor Andrei Arlovski to the series, who is just as good as Van Damme at the physical side of performing.

The Voracious Filmgoer: Tomb of the Undead Soldier: UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY  OF RECKONING
Van Damme in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

The real opus, however, is still Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, also directed by John Hyams. This film doubles down on the pure brutality that punctuated its predecessor and does a great job in deepening the world of the UniSols by taking a new perspective. It’s Blade Runner-esque, sure, but the action truly sets it apart as does the madcap harshness of it all – it’s a film with serious bite and some cripplingly dark themes of the lack of purpose for people and the futility of searching for one. Its quite unlike almost any other action film made in recent memory: a brutal, nihilistic film which never lets up and really kicks. It may even be a masterpiece.

Thankfully, it isn’t all doom and gloom, as shortly after that I stumbled upon the two Tsui Hark/Van Damme collaborations, both of which are gorgeous, exuberant films that are absolutely bursting with kinetic energy and make the most of Van Damme’s physical capabilities and Hark’s cinematographic ones. The camera is CONSTANTLY roaming, flying around audacious set-pieces in both Double Team (the zanier of the two films, certainly) and Knock-Off (my personal preference of the two – it even has a theme song by Sparks!). These two films completely embrace the chaos of action cinema. They embrace the silliness and use it to their benefit, going as completely over the top as possible and throwing audience belief out the window. The floors become like that of an ice rink, Van Damme slides around the set-pieces like a fish out of water (but with a gun!) and everything explodes. They’re the most wonderful escapism you can imagine.

Knock Off (1998) - Kung-fu Kingdom
Knock-Off (Tsui Hark)

The other film I saw worth noting is the more recent JCVD, a comedy/drama in which Van Damme plays a characterised version of himself who is financially struggling and gets caught up in a bank robbery. Again, it takes a lot from its main inspiration (in this case, Sidney Lumet’s absolutely wonderful Dog Day Afternoon), but it takes enough risks and has enough fun with its unique side to still be very entertaining. The opening scene in particular, a lengthy single take action set-piece, is really fantastic direction and performing, and the comedy throughout is surprisingly good. 

I still have more than enough Van Damme films left to see. Bloodsport, Sudden Death, Timecop and the upcoming Minions: The Rise of Gru (ok, the last one was a joke) all top my most anticipated films at the moment, as Van Damme’s varied work has given me all I was looking for and all that I needed from cinema at the moment. That wonderful mix of mindless escapism and harsher philosophical works was all I really needed for a mental refresh after a year of intense anxiety and stress… so, here’s to Van Damme, and to every other great performer who dedicate themselves entirely to making great art. Sometimes it’s all you really need.

JCVD movie review & film summary (2008) | Roger Ebert
JVCD (2008)

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