Retro Isn't New: Jean-Claude Van Damme Edition
Inspired by MVD Rewind’s new edition of Double Impact, it seemed an ideal moment to reconsider Van Damme’s work. In doing so it revealed a much more expansive schema, folded into which is the wave of Hong Kong / Hollywood cross-pollenation that would become a formidable element of 90’s mainstream American cinema.
For all intents and purposes, Van Damme’s career began in the ring. It is the foundation of his persona, the core of his skill set, the source of the uncommon heft behind his hits, but while it explains his instincts and his physicality, it doesn’t explain his charisma or charm, it doesn’t presage his trajectory in the film industry as it doesn’t for 99.9% of martial artists who move on from the mat. That had more to do with a perfect storm of ambition, conceit, happenstance and a genre boom. From the age of ten Van Damme studied Shōtōkan Karate, eventually expanding into Kickboxing, Taekwondo and Muay Thai. He earned his blackbelt at 18, though his semi-contact competitive career started as early as it could at the age of 15. Van Damme steadily climbed the ranks in Brussels from 1976-1982, earning a spot on the Belgium Karate Team and helping them take the win at the ’79 European Karate Championship. From 1977-1982 Van Damme moved from semi-contact to full-contact karate matches with 18 knockouts and 1 defeat and retired from competition (Karate and Bobybuilding) in ’82 with that standing record. Fresh out of the ring he took a stab at the film industry, first as part of a stunt crew and as an extra where he was noticed by the right people, and swiftly made his way to top-billing in the breakout success of Bloodsport (albiet that the Razzie Awards were right on his heels with a Worst New Star Award for Van Damme). His unlikely ascent from extra to lead happened between 1984 and 1986 and his subsequent trajectory was no less fevered, with an average of two to three films per year for the next 30 years.
In terms of box office draw, Van Damme’s brand hit its first bullseye with the loosely-based-on-actual-events Hong Kong deathmatch film Bloodsport, surprising its production company Cannon Films which led to their subsequent collaboration in Albert Pyun’s cult classic Cyborg (1989). In-between which was VanDamme’s supporting role as Andrie, a high ranking Russian enforcer and Japanese crossover star Sho Kosugi’s nemesis in Black Eagle (dir. Eric Carson, 1988), a Malta-set cold-war black-ops action-thriller. Black Eagle represents a moment worth digression. Sho Kosugi (Pray For Death, Rage of Honor, Enter the Ninja), though on the latter part of his own career arc, earned the lead roll and top bill over Van Damme. Kosugi, a former All Japan Karate Champion, is most remembered for the “Ninja Trilogy”, an semi-exploitation anthology series by Cannon Films who would shortly thereafter develop Van Damme’s seminal films. Manahem Golan of Cannon, who directed Kosugi in Enter The Ninja would produce Van Damme’s Bloodsport, Cyborg and Death Warrant. With the slew of films Kosugi would make with US studios between ’81-’93, he represents a significant Asian presence in the American action-film industry after the vacuum of Bruce Lee’s passing in 1973, as does Lee’s own son Brandon (Showdown in Little Tokyo, Rapid Fire) who deserves more accolade as a trailblazing Asian American mixed-race actor at a time when the crowd was incredibly thin. Though Lee and Van Damme would never cross paths in front of the camera, their careers would stride one another, tangent one another, and their heights would both be reached in 1994, one followed by tragedy. Their one degree of separation? : Van Damm and Lee would both defeat Bolo Yeung in respective films and they would share the screen sequentially with Dolph Lundgren (Showdown in Little Tokyo , Universal Soldier). Lee’s performance in The Crow suggested a brilliant and dynamic dramatic potential robbed by his accidental death during its production.
Though Cyborg only garnered $10,000,000, it eclipsed its 500,000 budget by a gargantuan leap, which is often the key to genre cinema success and is perhaps the caveat to Van Damme’s. $10,000,000 might get an eyeroll by 2019 standards, but if you keep the budget down the profit margin can swell by proportional consequence. To that frugal effect, Cyborg was actually made using sets and pre-production materials from Pyun’s planned Masters of the Universe and Spider Man projects, intended to be shot simultaneously but scrapped due to Cannon’s financial woes. That same year of 1989, Kickboxer slingshot Van Damme into the leading action star tier, cemented by the nuance he would demonstrate in Lionheart (dir. Sheldon Lettich, 1990) and the sheer testosterone he would seethe in the prison pressure-cooker Death Warrant, each eclipsing their modest budgets in box office returns. Van Damme reached peak ascent in the mainstream with the critically derided but commercially triumphant Street Fighter (1994) (notably a US/Japan co-production through Capcom), the high concept Timecop (dir. Peter Hyams, 1994) which fits nicely in the Looper/Minority Report/ Gemini Man family of thrillers, and Sudden Death (dir. Peter Hyams, 1995) which may constitute one of the purest action entries in his canon and one I recall viscerally from childhood. Sudden Death was relatively strong domestically but made a big draw internationally, which is perhaps what modeled Van Damme’s future endeavors when things curved downward after Double Team (1997) and Knock Off (1998) flopped back-to-back.
Exiting this wild ten year curve, Van Damme’s output has become a mix of below the radar theatrical releases, entries in the surprisingly thriving straight-to-video/streaming international action/thriller market, television (Jean Claude Van Johnson, 2017), voice acting (Kung Fu Panda 2 & 3), and directing (The Quest , Soldiers , Full Love ). That diversity, the lack of insistence upon the “box office smash” (which is as lofty a prospect as it has ever been) is the recipe for sustaining a career as an action/martial arts star, or for that matter any star nowadays. The typical shelf-life of a lead brawler is as anyone in the athletic arena, concentrated and brief. Their appeal is exhaustible when shackled to genre and formula frameworks. ….But everybody loves a good comeback. In recent years JCVD has helped propel a growing trend in action cinema that leans into - if not embraces - the age of its leads, noting his especially powerful paternal performances in French language film Lukas (aka. The Bouncer, dir. Julien Leclercq, 2018) and the Washington DC set We Die Young (dir. Lior Geller, 2019). Eastwood, Stallone and Schwarzenegger are proof of recent years that the mainstream can accommodate a return to the bareknuckle limelight if everyone just admits that things are different when you are older, that aging can be compellingly/comedically/dramatically woven into into a action narrative. Van Damme has been part of two such meta works of fiction, JCVD (dir. Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008) and the six-episode Amazon series Jean Claude Van Johnson (2016) which thrive on a highly enjoyable tactic of inversion and self-awareness. These two high-concept projects help exculpate Van Damme’s egomania-inflected character from the 90’s with a sometimes humbling, often humorous commentary on the fragility of celebrity. As the titles suggest, Van Damme plays “himself” as posited in situations like those of his oeuvre. The results are comical, existential and surprising as they play with degrees of parody or parity in regards to the man himself.
Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016) and Kickboxer: Retalliation (2018) are a reboot of the original from 1989 by Mark DiSalle and David Worth, which bore its own series of sequels starring Taekwondo blackbelt Sasha Mitchell (Step By Step, Dallas). In these new phase of the franchise Van Damme relinquishes the name of Kurt Sloan to Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt Alain Moussi in this reimagining of the lore, assuming the role of instructor rather than competitor, part of Van Damme’s victorious foray into supporting roles. I say victorious because, as Roger Ebert observed, it is the curse of the action star to always play the lead to ever-diminishing returns, shackled to formula. KB:V and KB:R (both available on Netflix) were initially to slated to have a much stronger Asian presence until Tony Jaa exitited as Master Durand due to scheduling conflicts and Stephen Fung relinquished his American directorial debut of KB:V to John Stockwell (Blue Crush, The L Word), choosing instead to helm two episodes of the acclaimed series Into The Badlands, which he also produces. Though it evaporated the potential of strong Asian authorship and influence in this reboot of a Muay Thai fighting franchise, it created the opportunity for Van Damme to shift his career dynamic, pay homage to his breakout role while pay it forward to the younger crop via Alain Moussi. Incidentally Moussi will star alongside Tony Jaa in KB: R director Dimitri Logothetis upcoming sci-fi martial arts film Jiu Jitsu (now in preproduction). Jiu Jitsu will also co-star Taekwondo/Muay Thai boxer/ actress Juju Chan of Wu Assassins, produced and directed by Stephen Fung. This is but an inkling of the tight circularity of the genre and the abundance of anecdotal whirlpools that hazard the waters of such research.
Given some distance distance, Van Damme can now be oriented within a larger spiderwebbed context, thanks in part to the monumental efforts of MVD Rewind to spit polish the films of his rising years, imbued of documentary resources. Perhaps most consequential are Van Damme’s ties to Hong Kong that begin with Bloodsport (1989) - where he fought Double Impact’s big baddie Bolo Yeung (Enter the Dragon, Legacy of Rage) the first time - and continues with him calling the city home for eight years running. More importantly, Van Damme’s ascending years offered a timely bridging element for several Hong Kong action filmmakers’ first forays in the Hollywood studio system during the middle stretch of the 90’s. Van Damme would star in the American directorial debuts of Ringo Lam (Maximum Risk, Replicant, In Hell), Tsui Hark (Double Team, Knock Off), and the legend himself John Woo (Hard Target). Hard Target is mentioned as being “the first major Hollywood studio film to be helmed by an Chinese Director” on its wikipidia page, a possibly confusing claim that deserves more clarification as the early 1990’s saw a slew of high profile Chinese films hit US screens, such as Yimou Zhang’s Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and To Live (1994), as well as Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Temptress Moon (1996). All the emphasis of this claim is on the “Major Hollywood Studio film” meaning a largely-if-not-totally domestic US production, and “Chinese” as distinct from Chinese diaspora/ Chinese American. To that note, Wayne Wang had already directed six well-regarded independent-studio films Stateside where he had been living and working since the age of 17. His cultural and 90’s era touchstone The Joy Luck Club, the source and the script written by Amy Tan, would sweep the nation in October of 1993 (as would Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine that same month) rubbing elbows with Woo’s summer sucker punch Hard Target by a mere two months. It is also worth noting that Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, a Taiwan/US co-production that won the top prize at Berlin and garnered an Oscar nomination was also a 1993 release (hitting theaters two weeks before Hard Target). All this is to say that 1993 was a big year for central Asian representation in American cinema (in front of and behind the camera) and on American screens, largely but not exclusively from Hong Kong, and not exclusively action although the motility of the genre would allow for so much productivity and consumability in the ensuing decade (as indeed formula and franchise offer excusable repetition). Van Damme as the star of Hard Target and other subsequent crossover works is perhaps more a vehicle - even a pretext - than a motivation here. The industry connections between John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark suggest a characteristic of cronyism amid this swift and specific migration of individuals, but Van Damme’s action acumen presented something timely and unique. He was carrying the torch of Chuck Norris and demonstrated a range that his brooding contemporary Steven Seagal couldn’t muster. He was the man of the hour.
Van Damme became a fulcrum of sorts, upon which Lam and Hark leveraged their respective hollywood projects, and the rest is perhaps a consequence of this precedent. Hark and Lam retained Van Damme in all of their stateside features, but John Woo, perhaps having a sour taste from HT’s strained production, would go on to make five more films in America with various leading men, including the singularly batshit insane Face/Off which honestly surprises me as not being a staple of the midnight movie circuit. At the time, the 12 year old me had no idea that between F/O and Broken Arrow I was being primed to understand an intrinsically Hong Kong sense of balletic violence, camera centric choreography, and extenuating premises the likes of which would later have me swooning for anything and everything Johnnie To. Imprinting is real. That Van Damme, at the height of his hubris, circumvented the already legendary filmmaker of The Killer and Hard Boiled to edit his own egoistic version of Hard Target (likely utilizing reams of footage from the muscle-cam he stipulated during shooting) is as unforgivable as it is unthinkable, but it happened. Thanks in part to Sam Raimi’s fervent allyship and vocal support (he had incidentally been hired to replace Woo if shit hit the fan) most of the substantive cuts to the film are those made by Woo and editor Bob Murawski to garner an R rating from the MPAA, however the version that hit screens is still not the true Director’s Cut, suffering from studio and test-screening interference, stylistic dampening, softened edges and disrupted continuity. The 100min Euro cut of the film is the closest to the original and is available on blu ray.
For an important piece of context, 1992, the year after Double Impact’s HK based production, saw the creation of the US-Hong Kong Policy Act, a pledge of bilateral support and an agreement by the US to treat HK as autonomous from mainland China after the scheduled 1997 handover by the UK, with a dedication to mutually beneficial trade, business policies and intercultural activities. Director Sheldon Lettich had cognizance enough to incorporate a sense the historical/colonial context within the narrative, whereby an underwater tunnel between HK and Mainland China is the result of a joint UK HK construction project, albeit with some dubious and ultimately deadly Triad entanglements. What this does is put Double Impact just ahead of the curve, just ahead of the panache.
The subsequent waves of Hong Kong talent on American shores shortly after Double Impact seems a natural consequence of this fortified and codified international relationship as well as a possible consequence of that modest film’s international success. Though there were credible ambassadors in the film industry prior to 1992 - more importantly Asian - an unprecedented volume of individuals and material began to filter into the hollywood mainstream milieu in the undertow of modern hard-hitting action cinema. Double Impact presented a strong and timely preface. A mainstream American film shot immediately on the heels of the Cold War and a significant international relations effort between the US and HK, made almost exclusively in HK with an HK production unit, followed by JCVD’s starring roll in John Woo’s Hard Target set a cross-cultural rippling effect that would exceed the action genre, but would, until now, in the “after Crazy Rich Asians” era, be strongest within it.
Hong Kong aesthetics, effects, styles, stunts and energy applied to action cinema in the US was propulsive and refreshing, and JCVD provided a means of segue through his martial arts mastery, his corporeal style and growing popularity. Acting talent from HK was soon to follow the directorial cohort, a continuation of the trickle of talent that had flowed from decades past was now a steady stream. Chow Yun-Fat (Hard Boiled) came to American screens rightfully as a top billed star in The Replacement Killers (dir. Antoine Fuqua, 1998) and The Corruptor (dir. James Foley, 1999), both of which transfixed me as a young teenager with their grit and balletic bullet play. After his appearances in Anna and the King (dir. Andy Tenant, 1999) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (dir. Ang Lee, 2000), Fat would be cemented in the canon and forever recognizable the world over. Jet Li (Fist of Legend) caught the wave as well, prefaced by the 1999 US release of Daniel Lee’s wirework spectacle Black Mask (1996) which, as a niche film modestly advertised, made an impressive $12,000,000USD, and was written by Tsui Hark. Li would become a household name when his supporting role in Lethal Weapon 4 gave way to a string of lead performances in Romeo Must Die (dir. Anderzej Bartkowiak, 2000), Cradle 2 The Grave (dir. Anderzej Bartkowiak, 2003) and The One (dir. James Wong, 2001).
James Wong, responsible for the highly successful Final Destination franchise directing both the original and 3rd installments, is a Hong-Kong born filmmaker/producer who moved to the states at the age of 10. His is a case of a domestic US talent with Hong Kong roots helping to extend the wave and give opportunity to an Asian lead, as represented in The One. Wong would later work largely as a writer and executive producer on The X-Files, American Horror Story and Scream Queens. Following a similar generalized curve from action to horror, Ronny Yu, who helmed Brandon Lee’s only Hong Kong film Legacy of Rage (1986) is a less salient part of this Directorial wave with his enchantingly embellished but luke-warmly received fantasy adventure film Warriors of Virtue (1997) which in hindsight does a commendable job of introducing Hong Kong action cinematography infused with Chinese-themed mystical content to an American youth audience. Yu’s subsequent efforts, Bride of Chucky (1998) and Freddy vs. Jason (2003) would make him responsible for the more dubious entries in already dubious horror franchises, but would be redeemed by the international success of his Hong Kong production Fearless (2006) starring Jet Li as martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia, folding Yu back into the original cohort. Chen Kaige, oscar nominated for Farewell My Concubine would even take a stab at La La land, with his drama Killing Me Softly (2002), starring Heather Graham and Joseph Finnes. Graham’ Alice “faces deadly consequences for abandoning her loving relationship with her boyfriend to pursue exciting sexual scenarios with a mysterious celebrity mountaineer.” Kaige is said to have been interested in the project and the prospect of working in the US because Chinese censors would never have allowed for such explicit sexual content (for which there are R and Unrated versions). Such is an example of a Chinese filmmaker setting their own intention and terms, resulting in a director’s cut. Kaige has yet to repeat this endeavor, perhaps having scratched that itch. Kar Wai Wong made his way to Hollywood later in 2007 with his arthouse darling but commercial flop My Blueberry Nights (2007) starring Norah Jones.
The one who made the biggest splash, the spastic elephant in the room of this conversation, who was already the best of the best in Hong Kong, already an auteur with a slew of directorial credits, and who caught the wave before all the rest with the thunderclap of Rumble in the Bronx (dir. Stanley Tong,1995 [Tong would later direct the controversial Mr. Magoo starring Leslie Neilson) is THE Jackie Chan. Barring the virtually undiscussed 1985 flop The Protector (dir. James Glickenhaus), also staged in NY but filmed mostly in Hong Kong - a film with which Chan was so displeased with that he did massive reshoots and re-edits for the HK release - his ostensible mainstream introduction to American audiences (myself included) was Rumble in the Bronx. It was a love-at-first-sight shock-to-the-system as any late gen-x/early millennial will attest. His breakneck pace, breakneck stunts, the kinetic, dynamic and incredibly cogent editing of fighting and action sequences, all married with his charm. A mere three years later Chan would star in Rush Hour (dir. Brett Ratner, 1998) which is currently staging its fourth sequel. By the time of Rush Hour a healthy retrospective wave of imported titles like Police Story 3 (Supercop), Police Story 4 (First Strike), and Legend of Drunken Master (dir. Chia-Liang Liu, 1994), etc found themselves in us theaters and video rentals. Padded between hollywood productions, this made for a near ceaseless stream of Jackie Chan pictures from 1995-2008, including an animated series, The Jackie Chan Adventures. Jackie Chan’s range as an actor, his inimitability as a stunt person and stunt/fight coordinator blew US audiences away because they’d never seen one person do so much. With only Bruce Lee to compare, Chan was a spastic, comedic and boundlessly energetic new manifestation of the martial arts lead, whose contribution is his uncanny use of physical environments, set pieces and objects to frame the action of his combat. All this is to say that, as Van Damme sparked the genre material here in the states and served his role as a pivot point, the talent from Hong Kong took the reigns on its own momentum.
Incidentally, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark (both of whom would direct Van Damme by decade’s end) would co-direct Twin Dragons starring Jackie Chan and….. Jackie Chan in ’92, less than a year after Double Impact. The titular twins are Ma Yao and Ma Wan, separated at birth when a gang causes a scene at the hospital, who reconnect about 25 years later and become entwined in each other’s lives to violent and comic effect. One cultured one streetwise, one raised in America, one in Hong Kong, the two couldn’t be more different but they find begrudging common ground. I don’t fault the copycat. There is an entire subgenera of twins separated at birth. The idea is in the ether. You can throw it at any genre and the antics are baked in. What this cinematic twinning between Chan and Van Damme represents though is just one more example of an interchange that pits Van Damme as a node of transference. Nothing more, nothing less.
The work of bringing Asian talent, authorship, style, faces to the forefront of American entertainment has been a nearly century long battle, fought almost singularly by those talents. Many broke into the American white-majority mainstream well before JCVD threw spin-kicks in timberlands. We can go back to the silent era for that, where Anna May Wong and Hayakawa Sassue truly broke ground. Lets also recall that Umeki Miyoushi would be the first Asian person to win an acting Oscar (Sayonara, 1957), of which there are currently only 3.
My intent here is not to write the definitive piece on this complex cross pollination of talent between the US and HK film industries timed with a piece of international economic policy. My intent is to reveal the surface of that history and to admit that it has only just been scratched. There are many names besides the aforementioned that exist largely outside of the action realm, predating JCVD’s career, predating his timely participation in the paradigm shift. Names like John Lone, who’s roles in Year of the Dragon (dir. Michael Cimino 1985), The Last Emperor (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987), The Shadow (dir. Russel Mulcahy, 1994) and M. Butterfly (dir. David Cronenberg, 1993) would make him a sought after lead. Lone was born and raised in Hong Kong but came to America to continue his studies after years under the brutal tutelage of the Peking Opera (something that would prepare him for the role of Song Liling).
Needless to say, these are mostly the leading MEN of the crossover, saying nothing of the impact that women such as Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, Vivian Wu, and many others besides have had in Hollywood. Cheung has a Cannes best actress award under her belt for 2004’s Clean (dir. Olivier Asayas). Yeoh in particular is amid yet another ascent in her always upward trending career, starring in Star Trek Discovery (with her impending spinoff series) and a starring role in the subsequent 4 Avatar sequels, Wayne Wang’s Chinese Box , Kar-wai Wong’s In the Mood for Love, Police Story, Sausalito ( an HK US coproduction by Andrew Lau). Joan Chen would capture audiences across the nation as Josie in Twin Peaks, and would appear in Judge Dredd, The Last Emperor, Heaven and Earth, On Deadly Ground, Lust Caution, and the series Marco Polo. Vivian Wu was an early 90’s rising star, appearing in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, The Joy Luck Club, Heaven and Earth, and The Guyver and The Pillow Book.
I wondered about women behind the camera too. After some digging I unearthed the name Shirley Sun, who directed the 1990 film Iron and Silk American writer Mark Salzman (incidentally co-starring Vivian Wu). It details his journey to China after college to study Chinese Wu Xiu, better known in the west as Kung Fu, and to teach English. She would also co write A Great Wall, the first American film produced in Peoples Republic of China. Iron and Silk positions Sun’s contribution a year ahead of Double Impact’s seemingly precedent-setting success in the mainstream.
That we have strayed from JCVD after a laser focus on him is really the whole point. He was a bridge support, a point of intersection, party to a significant flow of talent from Asia to the US. It is difficult to describe it without the risk of exaggerating it. But it is clear that he was but one such support, with peers, antecedents, and those that came after. What surprised me at all was that MVD Rewinds release of Double Impact would secretly be a rabbit hole of this proportion.