What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
You. Not. Expendable. Will revisit some of the classic (and not so classic) films starring the various and sundry cast members of The Expendables 2 in order to open up a conversation about action cinema in general and to prepare us all for the carnage that Expendables 2 will (hopefully) reap upon us all.
As we approach the August 17th theatrical release date of The Expendables 2, You. Not. Expendable will highlight different cast members, singling out a few of their feature film endeavors. The jury is still out on whether you, too, will want to revisit each of these films.
While I am trying to keep the order of these revisitings at random, I did find a bit of a themed trilogy within my Dolph, Arnold, and Van Damme entries thus far: American Action Stars From Europe Who Played Russians To Mask Their Accents! Yes, that’s right. Although the traditional action film is about as American as apple pie and Wyatt Earp, many of our all time favorite action heroes do not hail from the USA. And there is more of that to come as we revisit some of Jet Li’s film highlights, Jason Statham’s and more. Picking 3 of JCVD’s gems to highlight was no small challenge, as he was my personal action idol as a whippersnapper. (And remains pretty high up there to this day!) The 3 I chose to highlight represent a pretty huge spread, spanning from 1988 to 2008, 20 years of action filmmaking from the Muscles From Brussels!
Many were saddened that Van Damme wasn’t in the first EXPENDABLES film. I was one of them! But in all honesty, the villain in THE EXPENDABLES was truly lacking. With Van Damme we have a formidable opponent for Stallone’s team to square off against, and I kind of think I’ll be rooting for Van Damme to win! With a name like Jean Vilain, he was all but born into this life of crime, wouldn’t you say?
Alright, let the Kumite begin.
- There are no enemies. There is no glory. This fight is one on one.
- Two warriors meet… only one will survive.
Some of you may decry this film being included in a JCVD retrospective because BLACK EAGLE is, in fact, not really a Van Damme starring vehicle. Well, on one hand, I did want to complete my “action heroes playing Russians” trilogy. But on the other hand, my memory, and my box art, sort of deceived me. Although I knew Van Damme played the villain here, I certainly did not remember how little screen time he really had, or that this was a Sho Kosugi joint.
In reality, BLACK EAGLE IS a star maker for Van Damme just because of how brightly he shines in this low rent action film. No one in front of the camera, or behind, has half of the charisma or presence that Van Damme displays in his limited screen time as Andrei, the KGB heavy hitter who must go up against the dreaded secret agent Black Eagle (Sho Kosugi) in a small arms race.
If you are not familiar with Sho Kosugi, think of any movies made in the 1980s with the word “Ninja” in the title; Kosugi is most likely the star of that movie. REVENGE OF THE NINJA, ENTER THE NINJA, NINJA III, NINE DEATHS OF THE NINJA. Literally all of those are Kosugi vehicles. And he was most recently seen in NINJA ASSASSIN! The man was a legitimate action hero in the 1980s despite his incredibly thick Japanese accent and his unassuming looks. He would make an awesome addition to THE EXPENDABLES 3 cast, but enough about Kosugi, this is a Van Damme piece!
JCVD does a lot with very little here. His Andrei isn’t even the “lead” villain in a sense, because he plays the muscle behind an older, higher ranked KGB beaurocrat. But it is clear that Andrei is the biggest threat to Sho Kosugi’s quest to… do something about a weapons system that crashed into the ocean aboard a fighter plane near Malta… or something. But Andrei manages to find love with a Russian hottie while tracking down our heroic Ninja, and his one big on screen battle with the Black Eagle is the highlight of the film. Hell, he even gets to win the fight! Its almost like he had a contract where he would play the bad guy, but he wouldn’t have to lose. So in the end, Van Damme meets his maker in the lamest villain death of all time (But hint: it isn’t at the hands of Sho Kosugi.)
BLOODSPORT came out the very same year as BLACK EAGLE and clearly launched Van Damme into a different stratosphere of stardom than Kosugi ever realized. So all the box art and advertising for BLACK EAGLE features a prominent JCVD, sometimes even removing Kosugi entirely. “That’s why they call it BLOODSPORT, kid.”
Van Damme is somewhat famous for his onscreen splits. Not to mention regularly baring his ass and often showing the same punch/kick from multiple, quick cutting angles. It seems the splits gag was birthed here in BLACK EAGLE, as I recall three instances of pretty badass splits happening. One has Van Damme, erm, “spread eagle” across two barrels, throwing knives at a target! The other two are actually used in combat against Kosugi and all are pretty spectacular on screen. Nobody does the cinematic splits like our man Van Damme.
Netflix does not have BLACK EAGLE, but I was able to rent a VHS copy from Austin’s I Luv Video. It does appear to have a few different DVD releases which can be found on Amazon. I should also mention that a couple of AWESOME Sho Kosugi movies, including RAGE OF HONOR and PRAY FOR DEATH, are available on Netflix Streaming.
- They Don’t Play By The Rules.
- You’re either on their side… or in their way.
- America’s top counter-terrorist usually works alone… this time he’s got company.
A talk backer recommended that this column touch on DOUBLE TEAM when we got around to a Van Damme piece, and I felt it was a good idea because I personally had never seen this film, and because I knew it came out of the period where Van Damme was partnering with major Hong Kong action directors. With DOUBLE TEAM, we have an inspired pairing between Van Damme and director Tsui Hark, as well as the least inspired pairing perhaps in cinema history, JCVD and Dennis Rodman.
Yes, DOUBLE TEAM is the buddy cop film starring Van Damme and Rodman. And the laughs just… never come. At least not when the filmmakers planned on them to. Rodman runs around making basketball references like “Whoops, air ball” after missing a crucial throw. And other comedy gold. On one hand, someone could watch DOUBLE TEAM and find just about everything that was wrong with American action movies in the 1990s. Rodman, Van Damme’s haircut, and an over reliance on computerized grandiosity.
But, if one were to watch this as a Tsui Hark picture, and keep in mind some of the visual flare and over-the-topness that some of his Hong Kong epics display, there may be a kind of genius to DOUBLE TEAM.
Regardless of which lens you watch DOUBLE TEAM through, Dennis Rodman is a travesty. A black hole of on screen talent, personality, or engagement. May that man never grace a film screen ever again. Not only that, but his casting in DOUBLE TEAM is so wink-wink that it derails the entire film for me. That is the trouble with stunt casting. It is a stunt. And this is a worse case example of that kind of decision making.
However, I would be remiss not to recount a few of the truly insane and memorable moments that make DOUBLE TEAM a WTF gold mine, and well worth watching. This next section will be pretty much entirely spoilers:
- The second act of DOUBLE TEAM sends the movie careening from standard action fare into high concept science fiction in a jolting manner indeed. Act I sets up a rivalry between Van Damme’s anti-terrorist agent character and Mickey Rourke’s villain. All seems to be going swimmingly when suddenly an injured Van Damme wakes up on a high tech island filled with supposedly dead super spies and super villains! I guess the concept here is that these people are too valuable to be killed off, so they are cut off from society, declared dead, and forced to use their skills to battle against world wide terror. Hmm. Act II becomes a sci-fi prison break story with Van Damme having to escape The Isle Of The Spies and rescue his son from Mickey Rourke’s evil clutches.
- Then there is a fight sequence in which Van Damme fights a dude with a guitar case machine gun, then immediately fights a guy who launches his shoes at Van Damme as weapons, and proceeds to grip a blade with his toes and knife kick a lot. It is a left field fight sequence of sublime inefficiency!
- The conclusion of DOUBLE TEAM is so remarkably high stakes, and completely unswallowable, that you have to admire the audacity of it all. Somehow, Rourke’s character manages to get Rodman and Van Damme to the ROMAN COLLISEUM. There, he has ingeniously rigged up a minefield, and then sets a tiger loose, too. Amazingly, there exists a movie where, if you pause it at just the right time, you can see JCVD, Dennis Rodman, Mickey Rourke, the Colliseum, a tiger, and a minefield, all in one screen. The whole tiger thing really comes back to bite Rourke in the ass when he has to set off the minefield in order to avoid getting mauled by the tiger. Fortunately, there is a thing called product placement, and as the ENTIRE ROMAN COLLISEUM blows up, Rodman and Van Damme hide safely behind a Coke machine.
This is true. Every word of it. And the more I think about it, the more DOUBLE TEAM might be some kind of bizarre unintentional high concept action comedy masterpiece. It’s just too bad it has Dennis Rodman in it, because I can’t find a single angle about his presence to enjoy on any level.
You can rent a DVD of DOUBLE TEAM through Netflix, or buy it on DVD at Amazon. It does not appear that DOUBLE TEAM has been given the Blu-ray treatment just yet.
Tag Line: The biggest fight of his life.
JCVD is a miracle of a film. There was never any chance that I would not include it in this Van Damme piece because any chance I get to discuss this film or get exposure for it is a chance I will take. It is a film so unique and brilliant that nothing will really ever compare to it. It is a singular vision.
Van Damme stars as a hyper-realized version of himself. Down on his luck, facing a custody battle over his daughter, and losing acting gigs to a Steven Seagal who has promised to cut off his pony tail!
Neither an outright comedy, drama, action film, or biopic; it includes elements of all of these styles to absolutely knock this movie out of the stratosphere. JCVD opens with a brilliant long take that would be at home in any recent Van Damme film. Our hero explodes onto the screen, weaving his way through an urban battlefield. He punches, he kicks, he throws grenades, he rescues a hostage. The camera floats and follows all of this without cutting. It is a virtuoso action sequence. After probably 4-5 uncut minutes of action, a prop wall falls down and the set is revealed. Van Damme runs over to his disaffected director and shouts at him about how long takes like this are hard for him at 47 years old! The non-English speaking director says some unkind things and his interpreter tries to keep the peace. This perfectly sets the tone for JCVD. One one level, it is a well-crafted, well-written film which announces something totally different. And on another level it peels back a layer of veneer and tells us that this will be a raw and realistic look at what it is like to be a 50 year old Van Damme.
Practically announcing its high concept, art-house cred after that scene, we get chapter cards too! JCVD is told slightly out of sequence which adds to the mystery and comedy of the proceedings. Basically, the film tells the tale of a down on his luck Van Damme resorting to desperate measures and getting mixed up in a bank robbery in downtown Brussels. Before it all comes to a close, there will be a chanting, teeming crowd rooting for their hero, Van Damme’s parents will get involved, and police SWAT teams will be called in to manage the hostage situation.
How would you feel if you were stuck in the middle of a bank robbery and Jean Claude Van Damme was there with you? JCVD explores all of the angles of that scenario and you are guaranteed to laugh and may even be oddly moved.
Jean-Claude tears up the screen here, in what is unquestionably his greatest achievement as an actor. There are moments of incredibly vulnerability, as well as classic moments of action and comedy. Van Damme at one point delivers a monologue for the ages, looking straight into the camera and bringing a level of performance that we have never seen from him before or since. It is as though Van Damme literally went for broke and left everything he had on the screen for his fans to see.
I don’t know exactly how this film came to be, but I really want to. My DVD doesn’t have a director’s commentary or anything like that. But writer/director Mabrouk El Mechri deserves an enormous amount of credit for this project as well. Did he write this with Jean-Claude’s collaboration? Or was it a blind sell that Van Damme agreed to? How did El Mechri gain so much of Van Damme’s trust that he was able to create such a vulnerable and fascinating picture here?
My great hope since seeing JCVD has been to see Jean-Claude Van Damme get rewarded for the bravery he displayed in the film. It is clear that, with the right script and the right director, Van Damme can be an A-list performer, even in his 50s. I’d have loved to see some dramatic roles for him after JCVD, or at least a script and a budget offered to him that would get him back up on the big screen. Alas, while his latest Universal Soldier: Regeneration was easily better than the first, it hasn’t gotten much love. And FULL LOVE (now re-titled SOLDIERS), which he wrote and directed himself, and reportedly used his post-JCVD clout to get off the ground; hasn’t yet been released in the US. So it looks like EXPENDABLES 2 may be Jean-Claude’s last time on the big screen here in US markets for the time being. I, for one, believe that JCVD is so off-the-charts bold, and so successful in what it was trying to accomplish, that our man Jean-Claude should be considered in an entirely different light than he really is today. Here’s to hoping.
JCVD can be rented on Netflix as a DVD, and it looks like there are a couple of different Blu-ray editions of the film, which you can buy on its own, or bundled with other Van Damme films on Amazon.
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis