Tough guy Jean-Claude Van Damme was quite a successful actor during the 1980s and 1990s, his films were international hits. Since then, the quality and success of his films have taken a nosedive.
I noticed his series (Jean-Claude Van Johnson) on Prime, a fictionalization of his real life. I tuned in to watch an episode, or most of an episode. It was a novel concept, with self-depreciating humor on Van Damme’s part. The muscles from Brussels is a good sport, the same affable guy he has played in most of his films.
Van Damme’s film career took a decided downturn from his peak in the mid 1990s, much like fellow action star Steven Seagal. When the bottom drops out from under an aging action star, the fall is fast.
I own one Van Damme film and it’s not one of his big hits. I pulled it out of my collection (as I was deciding which DVDs to donate) and decided to view it again. Till Death (2007), is a direct to video release, which are many of his films. I’ll come back to this film.
Bloodsport (1988) was Van Damme’s first starring role. It as not until his fifth film, Lionheart (1990), that I took notice. This is not a exactly Masterpiece Theater, but Van Damme does an admirable job creating an affable character. Van Damme co-wrote the screenplay. Like Chuck Norris, Van Damme comes across as likable, honorable and just a guy trying to get along. Van Damme has to try hard to be convincing as a villain.
After Lionheart, the next of his films I liked was Double Impact (1991), where Van Damme plays a dual role, in addition to co-writing and co-producing it. His films were increasing in budget and production values as Van Damme was creating a positive screen image and his films were making money, not just in Asia, but in America. Co-writer and director Shelton Lettich was a quality partner on these early films.
Van Damme busily was turning out two to three films a year. After a couple more films, Van Damme hooked up with veteran Hollywood director Peter Hyams, for his two best films, Timecop (1994) and Sudden Death (1995). Timecop, a science fiction action film, was his first starring role to top $100M at the box office. Sudden Death was a step down from Timecop, a bit formulaic, but still better than most Van Damme films.
His next film was The Quest, a huge budget directorial debut for Van Damme. Fame and leverage got into the director’s seat. The film is a bore, wasting a performance by Roger Moore. Like Seagal, who also directed a bomb in his only effort, Van Damme’s career lost momentum. A couple of more films of declining box office and Van Damme’s efforts became direct to video releases in America.
Van Damme did not stop making films, he hooked up with Stallone for an Expendables film and continued churning out Universal Soldier sequels, in addition to more generic action films, decidedly aimed at the foreign market.
Back to his film, Till Death. The film is cheesy in places and the acting is generally very over-the-top, but the theme of redemption is one that stuck with me. Van Damme’s acting over the years has not unearthed any great talent, but he is very comfortable in front of the camera and has learned to show more emotion. For a 60 year old, he moves darn well for his age, especially given that Seagal is a statute and wears a phoniest toupee that would embarrass even Burt Reynolds. Till Death is fairly predictable, although it does not take itself too seriously. Van Damme plays a police detective with a drug problem, a marriage problem and botches an undercover operation where two police officers are killed. He leaves a trail of destruction in his wake until he is shot in the head, but survives. In a coma, he wakes up seven months later and decides to deal with the problems he has caused, admitting to his errors and faults. For a film that you aren’t watching for the dramatic moments, Van Damme does convey remorse and a reset moral compass.
Long ago, the next generations of action starts surpassed Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, Gibson, Norris, Seagal, Van Damme, Eastwood and Jackie Chan, although they kept making films. Just because you can file for Medicare, there are still crimes to be solved, and bad guys fleeing in their motorized wheelchairs.