‘Thespian,’ ‘Academy Award worthy,’ ‘Multi-layered performance.’ None of these come first to mind when the name Jean-Claude Van Damme is mentioned, but that’s not really important. From a small role in the 1984 Chuck Norris movie Missing in Action and his star-making lead role in 1988’s Bloodsport to today, what Jean-Claude Van Damme has done is successfully deliver high-octane, martial arts action films over and over again (and one great, self-deprecating guest star appearance on Friends). Here’s a few of his best.
Storm Rothschild in Welcome to the Jungle (2013)
A reputable jump into comedy, a genre he hasn’t done nearly often enough. Low-level cubicle jockey Chris (Adam Brody) and his officemates are taken to, and then unfortunately stranded on, a remote tropical island for a two-day character-building course, led by tough ex-Marine Storm Rothschild (Jean-Claude Van Damme). ‘Murphy’s Law’ and a ferocious man-eating tiger hamper their attempts at a safe return to civilization.
Darren McCord in Sudden Death (1995)
think Die Hard, but at a hockey arena. Ex-fireman Darren McCord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) discovers terrorists have taken over the arena where the Vice President and McCord’s own children are enjoying a Pittsburgh Penguins NHL play-off game. McCord knows that the terrorists plan on blowing up the arena at the end of the game, forcing him to stop the plot and keep the game from ending. The film (a personal favorite of yours truly) is one of the few to see a mascot, Pittsburgh’s Iceburghhave the living crap beat out of him on film (there are Flyers fans that have probably taken a shot once or twice in real life).
Max Walker in Timecop (1994)
Jean-Claude Van Damme is Max Walker, Time Enforcement Commission agent, whose wife was killed the same day he took the position. Ten years later, Walker tracks down a former co-worker, who has claimed that US presidential candidate Aaron McComb (Ron Silver) is using time-travel to make money and bolster his bid for the presidency. Walker has to stop McComb from altering the timeline, but may also have a chance to stop the death of his wife, Melissa (Mia Sara).
Lyon Gaultier in Lionheart (1990)
To avenge his brother, French Foreign Legion officer Lyon Gaultier (Jean-Claude Van Damme) abandons his unit and travels to Los Angeles. After taking part in a street fight, Gaultier is introduced to an underground fighting ring, organized by Cynthia (Deborah Rennard). He makes his way up the standings, earning the name Lionheart and earning money to support his brother’s family. This leads him to face Attila (Abdel Qissi), undisputed champion. The martial arts fights are great, but Lionheart also allows Jean-Claude Van Damme an opportunity to showcase dramatic skills in growing the connection to the family.
Christopher Dubois in The Quest (1996)
Jean-Claude Van Damme is lead in The Quest, which also marks his debut as director. Christopher Dubois’ (Jean-Claude Van Damme) troubled life journey brought him to Muay Thai Island, home of the deadly martial arts, to Bangkok, and eventually to the ancient Lost City. It is here he must take part in the fabled Ghang-gheng, an ancient competition featuring deadly fighters from across the globe, all viking for the prized Golden Dragon. The movie was acclaimed by fans of martial arts films with its showcase of fighting styles from throughout the world. And it has Roger Moore.
Chad and Alex Grady in Double Impact (1991)
What’s better than one Jean-Claude Van Damme in a movie? Two Jean-Claude Van Damme’s! It’s Jean-Claude Van Damme² playing identical twins Chad and Alex Grady, who are separated after their parents are killed. Reunited 25 years later, the two team up, Chad’s yin to Alex’s yang, to take down Nigel Griffith (Alan Scarfe), their father’s shady former business partner, avenge the death of their parents and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. The first of four films where Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a dual role.
Chance Boudreaux in Hard Target (1993)
Hard Target has a place in history as the first major Hollywood film to be made by a Chinese director, the acclaimed John Woo in his US debut. Woo brought his stylized action sequences to the film, pairing well with its star. Jean-Claude Van Damme is Chance Boudreaux, who saves Natasha (Yancy Butler) from a group of thugs in New Orleans. Learning she is searching for her missing father. He agrees to help her look, only for the two to discover he was murdered by two businessmen, Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and Pik van Cleef (Arnold Vosloo), the organizers of a sport that involves hunting homeless men.
Jean Vilain in The Expendables 2 (2012)
Jean-Claude Van Damme finally joins his 80s/90s action cohorts in The Expendables 2 as the film’s antagonist, Jean Vilain. The mercenary group are sent on a simple mission, which quickly becomes a quest for revenge against Vilain, who murdered their teammate Billy (Liam Hemsworth) and now threatens to unleash a deadly weapon on the world. Stuff blows up, people get killed, but the movie really delivers with a hand-to-hand battle between Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Vilain and Sylvester Stallone‘s Barney Ross.
Luc Deveraux in Universal Soldier (1992)
Two rival soldiers killed in Vietnam, Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), are brought back to life as superhuman warriors, thanks to a top secret military experiment. When reporter Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker) uncovers the program, Deveraux, having flashbacks to his earlier life, switches sides to save her from the remainder of the team. Jean-Claude Van Damme v. Lundgren was a win however the film turned out.
Fictionalized Version of Himself in JCVD (2008)
The most personal and critically acclaimed of Jean-Claude Van Damme on screen, where he plays a fictionalized version of himself as an out-of-luck actor. Struggling with a career decline, even having lost a role to Steven Seagal, and personal troubles, Jean-Claude Van Damme is taken hostage with other customers during a bank robbery, where he floats between protector, related, and presumed accomplice. One scene involves Jean-Claude Van Damme breaking the fourth wall for a candid six-minute, single-take monologue, arguably his best dramatic work.
Kurt Sloan in Kickboxer (1989)
Jean-Claude Van Damme plays kickboxer Kurt Sloan, training for a revenge match against Muay Thai champ Tong Po (Michel Qissi), the man who crippled his brother, US kickboxing champion Eric Sloan (Dennis Alexio). It’s Jean-Claude Van Damme in his prime and the final showdown is one of the best Jean-Claude Van Damme fights captured on film.
Frank Dux in Bloodsport (1988)
Bloodsport is the martial arts action film that launched Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career as a top action star, and ranks as a top feature amongst his fans. Jean-Claude Van Damme plays US Army Captain Frank Dux, disciplined in ninjutsu, who competes in an underground, full-contact, and deadly martial arts tournament, the Kumite, Arguably the best of the martial art tournament sub-genre, with a wide array of disciplines showcased. Fun fact: the real Frank Dux was the films action choreographer and technical advisor, although his claims of the movie being based on his real-life adventures has been widely accepted.