While some many think of martial arts/action movie star as just a Hollywood actor who has made dozens and dozens of high-octane action films centered around a character who knows how to kick some ass, Jean-Claude Van Damme is actually a very accomplished martial artist.
Van Damme was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1960, and very early on in life he began competing as a martial artist. From the age of ten, JCVD began studying kickboxing, and at the age of 12 he began studying karate. At age 15 he began competing against other martial artists, and from 1976 to 1980 he amassed a whopping 44 wins and 4 losses in tournament matches. Van Damme has also trained in boxing and at a point was a professional bodybuilder on the European circuit.
Enamored by Hollywood, in 1982 Van Damme decided to move to the United States to explore a possible acting career. Almost upon arrival Van Damme caught the eye of Hollywood casting agents. Working his way up the Hollywood ranks, starting out as a bit player or Hollywood extra eventually moving his way up the latter, JCVD appeared in such films and television films as Breakin'--the 1984 break-dancing film and 1987's Predator (Van Damme was originally cast to be the stunt player inside the alien suit).
Van Damme continued to take bit roles and stunt work in Hollywood, until one day in late 1987 when he auditioned for the role of "Frank Dux," a martial artist. A film was being made about an aspect of his life story called Bloodsport. And it would launch Jean-Claude Van Damme up into the action genre stratosphere, making him one of the most attractive box office and home video draws of the 1980's. And followed was more success, a string of auto-pilot action movies, and then eventually a alleged fall from grace. Fortunately for us JCVD fans, he's back on the make and he is seeing a career resurgence of sorts, appearing most recently with Sly Stallone in an installment of his Expendables action franchise.
Here are our favorite Jean-Claude Van Damme movies (in no particular order):
With a script that was written by Sheldon Lettich, who had known the actual Frank Dux, the character that Van Damme plays in the 1988 Warner Brothers film, Bloodsport
is about western martial artist who travels East to complete in an exclusive martial arts competition called the "Kumite." Released in 1988, the film was a monster success for Warner Brothers and has since become a cult film of sorts. In recent years, allegations have popped up purporting that Dux never actually went East to compete in the Kumite and that it was all fiction. Regardless of whether you believe Dux's story of wish to discredit it, Van Damme really sells the Dux mythos and not only do audiences "buy-in" to the story of the film, but the film actually showcases Van Dammes amazing abilities as a martial artist. The film also starred Bolo Yeung, an Eastern martial artist who had also worked with Bruce Lee
years prior in Enter The Dragon
Catapulted across the screens in the United States during it's initial release by the now-legendary Cannon Films, the producers of 1988's Bloodsport wanted to capitalize on the success of Bloodsport. Kickboxer, shot in Thailand in late 1988, finds Van Damme and legendary kickboxing champion Dennis Alexio as brothers who are abroad fighting when Alexio's character is badly injured in a fight by the Thai kickboxing juggernaut "Tong Po" and left paralyzed. Seeking revenge for his brother, "Kurt," played by JCVD seeks out an elusive Muy Thai master and asks him to train him so that he can seek out justice against the monolith that left his brother for dead. Kickboxer was made for just under $5 Million dollars, and when the film opened up nationally, it did so on 973 screens across the United States, which resulted in the film's initial domestic gross equaling almost $15 Million dollars. A mega hit for Van Damme.
Made for $6 Million dollars by Universal Studios, and grossing almost $25 Million dollars, Lionheart saw Jean-Claude Van Damme returning to the big screen as "Leon" a French Foreign Legion Officer who decides to go AWOL to head toward the United States upon hearing about the death of his brother. Leon must care for his brother's family and in order to keep a roof over their heads he turns to underground Fight Club-like opportunities where he battles a variable collection of martial artists who afford different styles of fighting. Leon makes his way to the top on the circuit, all the way alluding two Foreign Legion officers who have been sent to capture him and return him to France.
Produced by Cannon Films and directed by cult favorite director Albert Pyan, Van Damme goes science fiction as "Gibson Rickenbacker" a solider who has to go up against opposition in a dystopian future.
Universal Soldier (1992)
Van Damme continues on in the realm of science fiction with 1992's Universal Soldier. A big-budget studio action film, which was directed by veteran film-maker Roland Emmerich (Director of 1996's Independence Day), Universal Soldier pits Van Damme up against Dolph Lundgren as so special-ops Army badasses who are both killed in Vietnam and then re-generated years later as killing machines. Van Damme and Lundgren did not get along well during the shooting of the film, and when the film premiered at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival in France, the two got into a fight which resulted in the two of them being needed to be pulled apart.