So you may or may not have gathered by now that I love Jean-Claude Van Varenburg, a.k.a. Jean-Claude Van Damme. He is my favorite of the ’80s/’90s action stars, mainly because, outside of Chuck Norris, he felt the most lethal. And even including Chuck Norris, Van Damme always seemed the most dangerous, and always had the best eye for directorial talent. There is a latent insanity baked deep into the mad Belgian’s eyes, and that comes out in his balletic fight scenes, beautifully photographed by great action directors ranging from Hong Kong aces Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark and John Woo, to the likes of Peter Hyams and Roland Emmerich. From time to time, my fanboy JCVD adoration will manifest itself in superfluous JCVD-themed posts. Spoiler: The 20th anniversary of my favorite JCVD movie is right around the corner (we’ve got about a month to go), at which time I will do an exhaustively minute analysis of its lasting power and quality.
In the mean time, I am assembling a list of the best Jean-Claude Van Damme fight scenes. The man has 54 feature-length cinematic credits to his name, and this writer has witnessed about half of that total. Over time, I may very well update this list to incorporate fights that are new to me. Alas, there have to be some rules to this thing, because without rules, we would be left with abject chaos — a.k.a. me picking fights exclusively from my three favorite JCVD movies. So I am limiting myself to one contest per film. And it must involve JCVD, otherwise I’d pick what’s actually the best fight scene in “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning,” where Scott Adkins’s John dukes it out with a rampant UniSol (Andre “The Pitbull” Arlovski) in a sporting goods store, making great use of all its products. Van Damme has always had something of a sense of humor about himself, so a lot of these scenes are patently ridiculous. And that’s not really a hindrance to their greatness.
10. “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning” (2012)
Opposition: Scott Adkins
Van Damme goes a little “Apocalypse Now” Brando here, head shorn and wearing kabuki make-up. But, you know, he was in way, way better shape in 2012 than Don Corleone was in 1979 (although they were both in their 50’s at the time of each movie). Great slow-shutter camerawork, cool grisly JCVD death. The only JCVD defeat to make the top 10 cut. Director John Hyams (also the cinematographer of “Timecop” and our #1 entry on this list), employs his years in the trenches as an MMA documentary director well here. He has a real command of movement and cutting in his fights, making the fifth and sixth “Universal Soldier” movies (“Regeneration” and “Day of Reckoning,” respectively) and “Dragon Eyes” some of the best 21st century JCVD action nonsense to date.
9. JCVD VS. JCVD, “Double Impact” (1991)
Opposition: Himself (he plays twin brothers Alex and Chad Wagner — doesn’t really look like a Chad, does he?)
Playing long-lost twins distinguished only by greased-back hair and relative interest in wearing silk underwear, the Muscles from Brussels and a doppelganger-from-the-back stunt guy get into a stair-shoving match over an imagined affair. It must have been tough for director/co-writer Sheldon Lettich and fellow scribes JCVD, Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes to finagle a way for JCVD to fight himself, but you KNEW it had to happen at some point or another. Jean-Claude wouldn’t fight himself again for another decade, when he is his own clone in Ringo Lam’s “The Replicant” (there, too, hair is an important distinguishing feature in that face-off).
8. The Fruit Market Melee, “Knock Off” (1998)
Opposition: About 50 Hong Kong extras
This marks Van Damme’s second collaboration with Hong Kong great Tsui Hark (“Once Upon A Time In China,” “A Better Tomorrow,” “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”) — the best fight from their first movie hits #4 on this list. Here, though, Jean-Claude (in one of his all-time goofiest haircuts, finishing a close second to the greased mullet of the #2 movie on this list) and CIA buddy Rob Schneider take on a host of Hong Kong gangster assassins. I spoke at length about the greatness of this fight in my Live Movie Tweet article, but essentially it’s notable here for its innovative wide-angle work and possibly the only shot that takes on a chain’s POV. This movie also sports a wide-angle shoe’s POV shot, and is generally insane. JCVD has always had an eye for visual talent, guys who could bring out the best in him. Trust me, when that chain takes out a whole arsenal of baddies, YOU WILL BE RIVETED TO THE EDGE OF YOUR SEAT. There is a special crazy zeal behind Van Damme’s eyes for the duration of this movie, because he was so coked-out for its production that he now remembers none of that process. And this was a man with a pretty high coke threshold, so…
7. The Ultimate Fight-Dance Thing, “Kickboxer” (1989)
Opposition: A bunch of Thai club ruffians (Ithikrai Maitriwong, Yai Sae-Ear, Saifar, Tubin, Payakdum, Praiwan Jr., Pichitchai Shuamongkol, Chanont Sri-Anont)
This and a certain snake-punch (more on that later) take the cake for being the most GIF-friendly JCVD conflicts. A fresh-faced Jean Claude, taking a break from several lengthy training montages, goes to a small Thai bar in town overlooking a boat dock (the dock is actually IN THE BAR, which of course has to be paid off in the fight). Drunk, he is inspired to dance with two local fly honies. His mentor (Dennis Chan, in surprisingly prescient old-age make-up) encourages some of local gangster Freddy Li (Ka Ting Lee)’s cronies to fuck him up. They fail, most spectacularly. There are many splits, and there is much rejoicing as JCVD disposes of them by throwing them onto and into every available surface. Any good fight scene requires its characters to take full advantage of every element in their immediate surroundings, and this one has no trouble doing that. I’m pretty pumped for the JCVD-co-starring re-boot.
6. The epic opening tracking shot of JCVD, “JCVD” (2008)
Opposition: Heavily-armed extras
Baby Huey and The Babysitters’ “Hard Times” lends this moment a sense of R&B levity, as we see JCVD, playing a more broken (and broke) variation of himself, take down a host of thugs in a continuous, de-saturated, slow-shutter Steadicam shot. The best part, though? The ending of the sequence, where a prop wall collapses and JCVD gripes with his Hong Kong director (a knowing nod to the man’s proclivity towards that type of pit boss) about the roughness of the stunt. I couldn’t find a well-captured version of the full clip online, BUT the linked trailer shows an abbreviated version of it that more or less tells you what you need to know. This was actually a very good film, by the way. Featuring one of the greatest meta speeches ever caught on celluloid.
5. The Farmhouse Wood Chipper Fight, “Universal Soldier” (1992)
Opposition: Ivan Drago
The only decent clip of this I found was in German, but you’re not watching this for the dialogue, you’re watching this for the fight (and the close-up inserts of severed human ears on Dolph’s necklace). Dolph Lundgren, four years before Steve Buscemi in “Fargo,” Dolph Lundgren bites it in a wood chipper. You forget how gory these movies were. The one part of it that you miss in the German clip is that it’s pretty hilarious to see two actors with limited English play American soldiers. This version of the clip, improperly compressed into an aspect ratio that squeezes the image to look too thin, at least boast some of that hilarious dialogue. “WELL THAT’S THE SPIRIT SOLDIER” sounds like it’s being uttered by The Wild and Crazy Guys via R. Lee Ermey.
4. The Coliseum Fight, “Double Team” (1997)
Opposition: Mickey Rourke and a Tiger
JCVD. A two-time Defensive Player Of The Year. Post-facial surgery Mickey Rourke. A baby. Like 20 Coca-Cola vending machines. AND AN EXPLODING TIGER. Just watch the clip. I could not stop laughing when I watched it — it’s utterly ridiculous, and yet ridiculously good. The first Hark-JCVD collaboration.
3. The Ball-Punch Fight, “Bloodsport” (1988)
Opposition: Chong Li
“Bloodsport,” featuring future Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as a pesky army officer trying to shut down JCVD’s underground fighting, was our boy’s big breakout. Playing real-life fighting champ Frank Dux amidst a stellar ’80s soundtrack (this and “Kickboxer” both have great driving, pseudo-Eastern ’80s synth soundtracks, actually), who struggles to avenge the… tough-but-totally-recoverable injuries incurred by his beer-guzzling fight bro Donald Gibb. The soundtrack, by the way, is dripping with pensive pathos that the movie proper sorely lacks, and the contrast is pointedly funny. Witness the power of this JCVD-reflecting montage, made almost entirely palatable by Stan Bush’s “Own My Own.” JCVD’s acting range at the time couldn’t quite match his fighting chops, though that would come later. Facing martial arts champ Bolo Yeung as the murderous Chong Li (think an Eastern Ivan Drago), Dux puts on a fight for the ages, replete with one of the great primal slow-motion ’80s screams. Makes you want to punch things. Hard.
2. The Fight Outside The Diner, “Hard Target” (1993)
Opposition: Four NOLA thugs (uncredited on IMDB)
Hey, did you like “Face-Off?” How about “Mission: Impossible 2?” Or “Broken Arrow?” Well, you have JCVD to thank (sort of) for all of those wild, pigeon- and slow-motion-stuffed action extravaganzas, as he brought “Hard Boiled” helmer John Woo over from Hong Kong to show his chops on his inaugural Hollywood picture “Hard Target.” This one is filled to the brim with great moments, from Van Damme’s climactic fun-house firefight with lead baddie Mr. Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) to a certain exploding gas barrel moment to the scene where JCVD’s Chance Boudreaux PUNCHES A SNAKE IN THE FACE to Wilford Brimley’s interesting take on a Creole accent. Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo were always first-rate baddies who have been a bit overlooked in recent years, which is too bad, because they pack a great menace here. For my money, though, it’s tough to top Boudreaux’s first fight, where he kickboxes his way to glory in simultaneously taking down four New Orleans lowlifes trying to rob (possibly assault?) poor little rich girl Yancy Butler. THERE IS SO MUCH SLOW MOTION. THERE ARE SO MANY MULLETS. THERE ARE SO MANY JEAN JACKETS. THERE IS SO MUCH SOUTHERN TWANG. Just watch it and tell me you don’t want to re-watch it about 20 times. He also has a legit fight INSIDE a diner in “Universal Soldier,” by the way.
1. THE ICY THE PENGUIN FIGHT, “Sudden Death” (1995)
Opposition: Iceburgh, Pittsburgh Penguins Mascot
“Sudden Death” is so fucking amazing. It’s hilarious AND really well made for what it is, a happily dumb “Die Hard” rip-off that can best be described as “‘Die Hard’ At A Hockey Game.” Don’t believe me? Just take a gander at this, the most brutal battering of a sports mascot ever. Director Peter Hyams (who also made the terrific “Timecop” and is papa to John) makes excellent use of many available props in the arena kitchen setting, including a boiling pot, a meat slicer, lots and lots of plate ware, a meat cleaver, a french fryer, and a murderous dishwasher. The overly-pronounced music tries way, way too hard to accentuate every single move in fire marshal JCVD’s fight with “Icy” Iceburgh, and it’s side-splittingly glorious. Go Blackhawks, by the way.
…And that, dear Filmcore faithful, is your list. While we’re here, know what’s NOT a good fight scene? This incoherently cut bout with an obviously-ailing Raul Julia in “Street Fighter.” The Godard level jump cuts are disorienting and leave the characters moving so abruptly and arbitrarily around the scene space you have no idea what’s happening. He has some dynamite fights in “Cyborg,” but the rest of that movie is so awful (it was produced by Canon, so… yeah) that it sort of negates the coolness of those fights, aside from the most lethal of elevated splits. The pivotal dual in “The Expendables 2” (STALLONE VS. VAN DAMME! 20 YEARS TOO LATE!) was quite something too, but again, that movie is awful aside from that scene. Plus, Stallone (65 at the time of filming) clearly would have no actual chance against the still-quite-flexible JCVD.