When it comes to martial arts action stars from the past the list is very short and yet, very impressive. Going back as far as the early 70’s, not all have reached the success of the greats, and in this respect the list is not very big. From the early names like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris to the later years of Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, each have reached what many others of there genre could not, Super Stardom! One true ingredient these action stars of the past had was a very real martial arts background. Not all who have reached “G.O.A.T” statues have had martial arts backgrounds. Stars like Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, all had no real martial arts training yet are considered legends in the action movie genre, respectfully so! Here I’m going to talk about one of my personal favorites, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Born on October 18, 1960 his story is one of rags to riches as he kicked his way to the top! Before his movie career took off Van Damme grew up with a heavy martial arts background starting at the age of 12 in Karate and Kickboxing. With an amateur record of 44 wins/ 4 losses and a Kickboxing record of 18 wins/ 1 loss (Wikipedia), he was the real deal. But it wasn’t until the late 80’s when I was first introduced to Van Damme and the movie that started his path to super stardom!
1988’s Bloodsport! Recommended to me by my brother, I rented this movie on VHS (remember those) not knowing much about it, and I was hooked ever since. A year later he puts out another great martial arts film, 1989’s Kickboxer, which becomes a cult classic. This movie inspired me to take up martial arts and before his next movie would hit theaters I was training, kicking palm trees and all! Another honorable movie mention in between this time was 1989’s Cyborg which had a smaller theater release but established what would later become Van Damme’s signature move, “The Epic Splits”.
With the release of Death Warrant in 1990 (pictured above) studios began to notice the popularity of Van Damme’s movies and the budget and quality of his films began to improve. This was noticeable in his next movie Lionheart (1990) followed by Double Impact (1991). But by 1992 with the release of Universal Soldiers Jean-Claude Van Damme was at the height of his career! Not his most financially successful film, but his most solid film thus far in terms of budget and quality. With top notch director (at that time) Roland Emmerich, the film grossed 10 million opening weekend which was a respectful amount for the genre at that time. It also teamed Van Damme with another 80’s action star Dolph Lundgren (Rocky 4), who plays the antagonist of the movie and leads to one of the best fight scenes of all time. This was followed by two lesser films in 1993, Nowhere to Run and Hard Target, the latter of which was directed by legendary action director John Woo (Face/Off, Mission Impossible 2, Broken Arrow). 1994 would mark the year of Van Damme’s most financially successful films of his career, a comic book movie called, Timecop! This was Van Damme’s first and only movie to ever cross the 100 million mark! Making over 100 million world wide. Unfortunately this was the beginning of the end.
What would follow would be a string of bad financial box office flops like the video game movie adaptation Street Fighter (1994) of the popular video game of the same name. The rest of the 90’s would be filled with bad movies, even Jean-Claude Van Damme’s directorial debut, The Quest (1996) was a financial bomb. 1999 would mark Van Damme’s last theatrical release Universal Soldiers: The Return, a direct sequel to his 90’s hit Universal Soldiers (kinda). What would follow next would be even worse straight to DVD films, giving the once known “Muscles from Brussels” a new nickname, “The Straight to DVD King”.
Redemption would come years later in the form of a spoof-documentary type film titled JCVD (2008). After years of fighting a drug abuse problem and a personal life that spiraled out of control, Van Damme has finaly made his way back from hitting rock bottom. Still fit today and taking roles that actually hit theaters like his villain role in 2012 The Expendables 2 and a Kickboxer reboot set to hit theaters this year (hopefully), I’d like to think JCVD is back! I believe he has at least one more good hit before retiring from being the lead in an action movie today. So if the day comes you can count on me to buy that movie ticket! Until then,
“See You At The Movies”…