Essential VOD Van Damme

It was announced recently that Jean Claude Van Damme may be taking a step down from acting soon.  Retirement beckons. But before that becomes a thing, we wanted to look back on his career and shed some light on some of his lesser-known films.

Van Damme famously left Hollywood in the 90s and his career quickly “descended” as some would put it into the direct to video realm.  Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren and Van Damme spent a large portion of their career making, and still do to this day, their take home in the DTV, DT-DVD and VOD markets.  But there is an argument to be made that Van Damme wasn’t simply churning out an inferior quality of film. Cheaper?  Sure.  But the man was clearly refining a craft he was given a lot of criticism for back in his Hollywood days: His acting skills.

This suddenly came to a head when he had an out of the blue success with the film JCVD in 2008.  This film, was largely released I n the direct to video realm, yet it caught the attention of enough critics to garner him some media attention.  Not only was he playing a version of himself, but his performance was highly noteworthy.  “Give the man an award” cried many critics.  Fans were elated and since then Van Damme enjoyed some prime attention.  In the years that followed he enjoyed time as a villain in Expendables 2, his own reality tv show “Behind Closed Doors and even a short-lived Amazon produced show Jean Claude Van Johnson (Again playing a “version” of himself). He even manged to get some voice over work in the Kung Fu Panda series, and in 2022 is playing a role in the Minion sequel.  A character with crab claws named “jean Clawed” (Guffaw!).

So, it is fair to say that the man has maintained popularity over the years. And here we would like to shine a light on some more of his directed to Video work from the turn of the century when he first landed there that are worth checking out.

Replicant (2001)

Van Damme is also notorious for playing dual roles in some of his films (A trick the Expendables series needs to pick up on).  The third time he did this came with a twist. He was playing a clone.  But he was also playing the good guy and the bad guy.

Hong Kong director Ringo Lam (whom Van Damme hard worked already with Maximum Risk) helmed this one.  Michael Rooker plays a cop on the hunt for a serial killer (Van Damme 1).  Turns out the best way to track the killer is to get inside their mind and figure out how they work.  The best way to do that apparently is to create a clone (Van Damme 2) and use them as a bloodhound to hunt the killer down.

The worst part of the film is its nonsensical premise, and even the action takes a back seat here.  The selling point of this film is the relationship been Rooker’s hard boiled cop, and Van Damme’s almost childlike clone – Born into a world of violence and beaten by a master who is terrified who will turn out to act like his original’s counterpart.  Van Damme sells child-like fear, and even plays the beaten puppy convincingly.  This is early on in is VOD career and clearly shows his willingness to take risks and try new things.

In Hell (2003)

Van Damme and Ringo lam teamed up one final time for this prison dram cum fight movie.

An American (Van Damme) working in Russia is sent to prison for killing the man who murdered his wife. And it is in prison where his life is pushed to the edge.  Beaten, confined and taken to the point of suicide.  Eventually he finds his way and ends up taking part in fights, arranged by the corrupt officials within the prison.  Each fight more gruelling than the next.

The fights are rawer than you may expect from Van Damme.  This is dirtier than the likes of the slow-motion antics of Kickboxer and Bloodsport. The human drama is also compelling as Van Damme plays a man broken and with seemingly little to live for.

Until Death (2006)

If you like watching Van Damme play flawed characters, then look no further than until Death.  This is the story of a very corrupt cop living in a corrupt world, separated from his family and on a descent.  This take a turn for the worse/better when he is attacked and shot in the head.

After waking up with a considerable amount of amnesia he is left to pick his life back up, not realising how hated he is by those around him. So, then he embarks on a path of redemption.

Until Death braves to be more than its VOD home will allow. It has an expansive cast of supporting characters that would normally not see the celluloid light of day, and has some very good early scenes with Van Damme’s character living in his depravity. A scene where he extorts rough sex from a woman is a stan out scene of his character at his worst.

So, it’s part bad lieutenant, Part Regarding henry and all done on a budget set in the seedy looking streets of New Orleans.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

Van Damme returned to the Universal Solider franchise here for director John Hyams (they would both return three years later for the very impressive Universal Soldier: Day or Reckoning. But whilst that film is superior, it also relegates Van Damme to about 15 mins of screen time, so we will keep the focus here for now).

Van Damme continues to play Luc Deveraux, under the watchful eye of scientists. So much so that he literally spends the first half of the film away from the action is him own little film.  Van Damme joins the action much later into the film, and you almost worry about it because those handling all the action up unto that point have been doing a very good job. Hyam’s clearly has a good eye for action, choreography and long takes.  Trust has been put into the hands (and limbs) of his performers and boy do they shine.

It is then a thrill to behold when Van Damme gets in on the action and it is ramped right up to 11. Van Damme has at least 3 stand out action sequences, each of them elongated.  First is his gauntlet assault on the facility he penetrates. Secondly is the face off against Dolph Lundgren’s memorable Andrew Scott clone (Probably the best fight these two have had on film together), and then thirdly his finally fight against Andre “the pit bull” Arlovski.

Assassination Games (2011)

Van Damme has worked with Scott Adkins thus far four times.  The first time they met Adkins was the bad guy. In the afore mentioned Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, Van Damme is the bad guy. In Expendables 2 they both play bad guys working together, and here in Assassination Games they both play good guys working together. This makes a unique selling point to avod fans of both as they have covered all basses with each other

Both characters converge on the bad guys in this one from separate angles and clash in the middle, only to work together in the third act of the film.  There are betrayals and twists along the way from multiple characters that generate enough interest in the film, and whilst Assassination Games isn’t going to reinvent any wheels, it is none the less worth a visit for both actors.

Enemies Closer (2013)

Now if you enjoy the few times Van Damme dons the bad guy cape, then look no further than Enemies Closer/ Van Damme reteamed with his Timecop/Sudden Death director Peter Hyams (Yes, father of John). Van Damme is clearly having an absolute hoot playing criminal leader Xander.  Dressed as a Mountie (ICE agent to be more precise).

He is taken on by a couple of unlikely heroes who themselves are at each other’s throats. This is pantomime Van Damme. The heroes aren’t very memorable, but you will have a blast with Van Damme doing the Die Hard-esque bad guy leader routine.

Kickboxer Vengeance/ Retaliation (2016/ 2018)

Somehow not only did they reboot the Kickboxer series, but they managed to get Van Damme in as the “master” trainer character. Twice!  Yup. The first film did so well that a second was fast tracked.

In the first film the plot is loosely based on the original Van Damme film from 1989 with a brother (Alain Moussi seeking vengeance against Thailand fighter Tong po (This time played by Dave Bautista). The supporting cast includes the likes of real fighters turned actors Gina Carano, Georges St-Pierre.

The second film, Retaliation, somehow manages to be even better than the first – roping in Christopher Lambert and Mike Tyson into the mix along with “The Mountain” Hafpor Julius Bjornsson as the main fighting antagonist.

It’s astonishing to think that Christopher Lambert and Van Damme had not crossed paths on film until now. And yes they have a sword fight – with Van Damme’s character being blind at the time.

The Bouncer (2018)

Also released as Lukas. Getting down with the real-life grit, Van Damme put in one of his career best performances here.  Lukas (Van Damme) lives with his young daughter and is forced to take on specific “heavy” work to make ends-meat. He enters into a dangerous world than quickly turns upside down and against him and he is forced to navigate both sides of the law in order to day alive and keep his daughter out of harm’s way.

Sounds very old pat on the surface, but the character work here and the down to earth style of the filmmaking makes this stand out. Van Damme is given the time he needs to express himself, and he tends to do this in the quieter moments on screen when he isn’t saying anything.  Van Damme has become a master of silent reflection.  The few reviews this film got all highlighted this film as one of his stronger performances, and certainly since JCVD a decade before it.

We Die Young (2019)

So quickly VOD films come and go, but We Die Young is another character piece. This time the focus of the film is on two central American teenage boys lured into the street war life.

Van Damme is technically on supporting duties here as a mute ex-marine who wants to help out the boys in their gangster infested neighbourhood. The film itself is an acquired taste, but it is done fairly honesty and with relevant themes and issue within it (even if a tad cliched).  Just don’t expect too much in the way of roundhouse kicks. But to keep this as a focus of Van Damme’s acting talent, it’s worth it for that.

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