Thursday, July 19, 2018

Top 5 JCVD Movies

As an avid martial artist and a movie nut, it probably isn't all that surprising that I have such an affection for kung-fu flicks.  While it's fairly easy for me to establish the upper reaches of a hierarchy in this glorious sub-genre (Bruce Lee is king, and the Shaw Brothers catalog occupies the second rung from the top), it gets a bit murky after that.  As a child of the 80s, it's no shocker that I have mad love for Chuck, and the 90s were also very generous to my generation so far as flying kicks and karate chops are concerned.  While Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme were vying for box office supremacy on the big screen, guys like Don Wilson, Gary Daniels, and Richard Norton were kicking the shit out of the cable scene--and Jackie Chan and Jet Li were doing big business in the East.

While I enjoyed Segal's badass persona, it always bothered me that he had no real competition in his movies.  Most of his work generally consisted of him wading through hordes of low-level goons, and he rarely squared off against any real physical threats.  For the longest time, his biggest test came in the form of a coked-up William Forsythe in Out for Justice.  Meanwhile, though JCVD features piled on the cheese and chutzpah and frequently veered toward the ridiculous, he had his fair share of quality showdowns along the way.  That's primarily why I came to favor his work, and for whatever reason, I have been revisiting his catalog recently.  As I look back, I can't help but use this platform to shape and share my thoughts.

That's right, folks, it's time for another Top 5, and this one is devoted to the action move megastar known as "The Muscles from Brussels" and his acrobatic martial arts classics/cheesefests.

Top 5 JCVD Movies

#5) Cyborg (1989)

The third Van Damme movie that I ever saw (with No Retreat, No Surrender being the first and Bloodsport being the second) remains one of my favorites for many reasons.  First off, it's incredibly lean and mean.  Running a mere 86 minutes, this grim futuristic revenge saga surely ranks among the star's darkest outings.  Secondly, it features what may be his best action sequence.  The big showdown in the middle of the flick where he takes on all comers and kicks ass for a solid ten minutes or so before the numbers game and fatigue finally do him in is positively massive.  Third, I always enjoyed director Albert Pyun's hyper-charged bottom feeders, and Cyborg is probably his finest hour.  Cyborg most certainly has its flaws, to include some dodgy effects work, a narrative so simplistic that even at only 86 minutes the movie sports some padding that makes it all too redundant at times, and a climax that can't help but be overshadowed by that epic throwdown in the middle of the picture.   However, it remains a riveting showcase for JCVD.  His career was just getting started when he made this one, but his talent and charisma were evident.  The picture itself is a gripping thrill ride with one hell of a mean streak.  Including this picture on my list at #5 seems like a fair assessment, but if I'm being completely honest, it probably ranks a bit higher in my heart.

You know what?  That action sequence in the middle of Cyborg isn't just one of Van Damme's baddest setpieces, it is one of the most bone-jarring setpieces in the realm of martial arts cinema as a whole.

#4) Universal Soldier (1992)

In my opinion, this is an easy call for this particular Top 5, but it doesn't rank any higher because I feel there are a few things that should be noted.  Most importantly, I believe it is a bit overrated simply because it pits Van Damme against Dolph Lundgren.  For whatever reason, while it has never been uncommon for major stars to work together in most genres, it always seems like a big deal when a couple of action heroes share the screen.  Long before The Expendables took things to a whole new level, we had to settle for Universal Soldier and Tango & Cash, and, well, Tango & Cash is Tango & Cash.  I don't mean that in a bad way, I mean that in a Tango & Cash way--which is pretty much the same thing, but I digress.  Anyway, it seemed like a big deal when these two titans shared the screen, and they do have chemistry, and each guy brings impressive physical tools to the table.  Take the star power out of the equation, however, and you're left with a non-sensical sci-fi slugfest that defies logic at every turn.  But that's okay, because as it turns out, so long as you have JCVD and Dolph on board, you don't need logic.  The second major point I should make is that while this may be Van Damme's list, Universal Soldier is Dolph Lundgren's show.  Don't get me wrong, this is actually one of Jean-Claudes better performances, but Dolph steals every scene that he's in, steamrolling everyone around him.  Dude was clearly born to play a heavy, and the writers made this bad guy a bit of a riot, which gave Lundgren all the ammo he needed to run away with the picture.  Now, all that aside, Universal Soldier is a solid outing for Van Damme, and it is highly entertaining.  It offers up several huge action setpieces, and the filmmakers clearly spared no expense so far as big weapons and even bigger explosions are concerned.  It has a bit of heart to go along with all the mayhem, even if that bit of heart is smothered in cheese, and it is never dull.  Some may rank it a lot higher than I have, but I think the #4 spot on this list is just where this particular soldier should be deployed.

It's Van Damme's Top 5, but Universal Soldier is Dolph's movie.  Believe that.

#3) Maximum Risk 

So, this is a bit unique for one of my Top 5 lists, but I can’t see it any other way.  I am putting Maximum Risk at #3 here, and I sincerely believe that it is easily JCVD’s best movie, all things considered.  In truth, the films I will be unveiling at #2 and #1 are not that good in many ways, and each boasts numerous elements that fall under the “so bad it’s good” umbrella.  Maximum Risk, on the other hand, is a pretty damn solid venture that doesn’t veer toward the absurd or the abysmal.  However, it doesn’t have the same impact as either of those films, as they are both glorious and terrible in equal measures.  Maximum Risk suffers by comparison because it doesn’t go too heavy on the cheese and doesn’t attain nearly as much cinematic significance because it doesn’t defy logic and quality filmmaking to tremendous effect.  It merely offers up a plethora of thrills and some genuine suspense, all while telling a tale that is silly enough yet not all that far off the grid for action flicks, and it is downright mundane when viewed within the zany confines of the Van Damme catalog.  It definitely features his best adversary in Stefanos Miltsakakis, and these dudes produce three dope scraps over the course of the movie.  Their big finale is a superb close-quarters battle, and all of their throwdowns are a bit more subdued (and thereby far more realistic and exciting) than typical Jean-Claude fare, with an emphasis on grappling and sterling choreography.  Director Ringo Lam does a bang-up job with the action, providing some nifty car chases to go along with all the gunshots and fisticuffs.  The plot is convoluted and has its contrivances, to be sure, but it might as well be Heat in comparison to notable JCVD pictures like Sudden DeathNowhere to Run, or (one of my personal favorites that did not make this list) Death Warrant.  It also features our high-kicking hero’s finest leading lady in Natasha Henstridge, who is uber talented and smoking hot—and never received her due in Hollywood.  That’s a damn shame.  All things told, I have no doubt that Maximum Risk is Van Damme’s best movie—it’s just #3 on my list if I categorize his career in terms of sheer entertainment, and, after all, that’s what we watch movies for.

These two enjoy three superb fight sequences that make Maximum Risk one of Van Damme's most thrilling movies.

#2) Hard Target (1993)

In Hard Target, JCVD stars as a buff hobo/martial arts dynamo/Marine Corps Reconnaissance veteran who sports a combination of a mullet and a perm.  That pretty much sets the stage for this one, with Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo doing their best to kill our feisty hero in John Woo’s totally ridiculous take on The Most Dangerous Game.  There are scenes in this movie that reek of comedic brilliance, and yet it is an action movie--and it does benefit from Woo's stylized mayhem and Van Damme's amazing acrobatics.  Hard Target sports some of the star’s most audacious stunts, and it somehow gains points instead of losing points when these unbelievable feats come across like bits that would have been right at home in another gem from 1993, Hot Shots! Part Duex.  Yet no matter how daft the picture becomes (and it is daft, my friends, very, very daft), it remains both entertaining and compelling.  Van Damme’s Chance Boudreaux is a silly character in an extremely silly movie, no doubt about it, but you can’t help but like the guy.  He does have some funny lines, and Van Damme's overblown persona is a perfect fit for this explosive assault on common sense.  And Henriksen and Vosloo are so vile and sleazy that you can’t help but savor it when they go from stalking homeless vets with minimal athleticism and charisma to trying to hunt a ripped bum with a mullet perm who can do splits and helicopter kicks and wield any weapon in the world better than any of the bad guys.  In this movie, Van Damme: A) punches a rattlesnake and renders it unconscious so he can use it as a weapon, B) rides a motorcycle like a skateboard before leaping onto a moving van and gracefully rolling across the roof, and C) races approximately fifty yards before devastating his chief adversary with a flying sidekick while doves take flight behind him.  It's important to note that during this last spectacle, his nemesis need only raise his weapon before Van Damme completes his mad dash, but as he is stuck in ultra slow motion, he is doomed to fail.  Hard Target is more of a farce than Commando, but it has the same absurd charm—and a much better villain.  Two of them, in fact.  However, unlike Universal Soldier, JCVD manages to hold his own this time, thanks largely to Woo's artistry and a gonzo role that is right at home in this gonzo blockbuster.  It is so ludicrous that it has to be seen to be believed, but that’s okay, because you’ll have a good time seeing and believing it.  Is it a good movie or a bad movie?  I think it's both, and I also think that if you drink enough while you're watching it, you may just find Hard Target to be the best movie of all time.

Is it a perm?  Is it a mullet?  Did it make Billy Ray Cyrus jealous?
#1) Bloodsport (1988)

Bloodsport is far from perfect, but it is a damn near perfect example of the kung-fu flick.  It follows one of the surest paths to greatness in this sub-genre by focusing on a tournament (the Kumite) wherein a variety of cultures and styles will clash.  While it has some of the clunkiest exposition of all time and the intrigue away from the tournament fails to generate interest, the main dish here is the Kumite.  On that front, Bloodsport delivers in a big way, and Jean-Claude would make the most of this showcase by utilizing his acrobatic skillset to the very best of his ability.  The direction isn't bad when you consider that the areas in which the movie fails aren't the areas in which it needed to succeed most, and the score is pretty f'n rad.  The craftsmanship as a whole is robust at best and serviceable at worst.  The plot is equal parts inane 80s action flick and vintage martial arts masterpiece, and it is due to the success of the latter that it remains so entertaining.  It also spawned a few memorable lines (I'm a sucker for "I ain't your pal, dickface") and managed to spotlight JCVD's charisma as well as his incredible kicks.  If Cyborg made it clear that Van Damme had potential, Bloodsport took it one step further and established him as a star in this genre.  He has a few good battles in this one, but it's the pulse-pounding finale pitting him against the vicious Chong Li (played to sheer perfection by seasoned vet Bolo Yeung) that seals the deal.  Bloodsport arrived as the sort of film that action movie fanatics and martial arts fans alike would savor for decades, and it remains Jean-Claude Van Damme's strongest effort.  It is a perfect example of the sort of picture that made The Cannon Group so famous and infamous in equal measures.  It has a bare-bones plot, a clumsy set-up, and it suffers from a love angle that fizzles along with some needless subplots.  It succeeds, however, by placing its emphasis on a likable hero and a series of high-octane action sequences that test his mettle.  The fun concludes when our worthy hero overcomes all odds and emerges victorious, and if you're looking for a good time at the movies, there's nothing wrong with that.  When I set about ranking Jean-Claude's body of work, I found an awful lot to enjoy, but there was no doubt that Bloodsport would be the last movie standing in this Top 5.

Note: ignore the claims that the film is based on fact.  So far as anyone knows, the real Frank Dux is a bullshit artist, not a champion.

From reel to reel, Van Damme's breakthrough movie probably utilizes more of his awe-inspiring athleticism than any of his future vehicles.  
So there you have it, folks.  I must admit, this Top 5 has been a lot of fun.  I loved JCVD movies in my youth, and I had a lot of fun revisiting them.  The martial arts mayhem that made them pop is still exciting, though I didn't realize just how silly a lot of these pictures were back then.  That only made them more entertaining now, and I have to say that Van Damme churned out a lot of winners in his heyday.  Nailing down this Top 5 proved difficult, and there are several honorable mentions.  Once I moved beyond the top three, I found that a lot of the films in consideration were on pretty even footing.  Films that warranted serious consideration but failed to make the cut here include Lionheart, Death Warrant, Sudden Death, Nowhere to Run, Kickboxer, Replicant, and Until Death.  I also enjoyed Jean-Claude a lot as the villain in The Expendables 2 even if his showdown with Sly left a lot to be desired, and I wouldn't be surprised if he manages to make another big hit before all is said and done.  He can still kick, and he still has mad charisma.  He just needs the right project, and I would love to see him land it.

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