JCVD returns this week in Peter Malota‘s Kill ‘Em All, a fiery shoot ’em up which sees the man himself return to form as a one-man killing machine caught up in the crossfire between an international criminal gang and an increasingly desperate FBI investigation. It is a ridiculously fun throwback to the Van Damme days of glory with well suited henchmen being reworked internally by the the muscles from Brussels. A wonderfully-bearded Peter Stomare and another key 80s action star Maria Conchita Alonso (who partnered The Running Man and took the alien to task in Predator 2) join in the fun. Take a look at the trailer, and you’ll know exactly what we mean…

Kill ‘Em All Movie Trailer

Now Matt Rodgers takes us all the way back, to remind us why Jean-Claude was such a big hit…

For an entire generation Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg will be known only for cold-climate set alcohol adverts, a stumbling turn in an Expendables sequel, and a viral video in which he performs a tear inducing split whilst astride two trucks. But for those of us more familiar with Jean-Claude Van Damme from his days on the dusty shelf of the VHS rental store – you’ve come to the right feature, because here at HeyUGuys we’re going to celebrate arguably one of the greatest heroes of our formative years; the muscles from Brussels.

Thrown into a world in which his hard-bodied counterparts – Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis – dominated the cinema screens, Van Damme found his niche on the late night television circuit, or as rental back-up when the on-loan tab was affixed to the oversized box-cover.

NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kurt McKinney, 1986

Titles such as No Retreat, No Surrender (1986), a film that was Van Damme’s US debut, and positioned him as bad guy Soviet street fighter (a label that would bookend his most successful period of films, but more on that later), and Bloodsport (1988), which took the Schwarzenegger route of having Van Damme play an “American” who leaves the military in order to fight to the death in Hong Kong martial arts tournaments, were the kind of films you’d borrow from your friends, but not tell mum and dad about. They were the very definition of cult, and Van Damme’s star was born from it.

There’s no contemporary parallel; Jason Statham’s action CV has a knowing B-Movie quality to it, one that has exploded into the Fast and Furious franchise. But remember he started in Guy Ritchie’s Britbusting films, and Nicolas Cage won an Academy Award before becoming an ironic straight-to-DVD star. No, Van-Damme owned this arena, with a straight face and a fierce determination to become an icon.

If you were playing the movie round of a pub quiz and the teaser posed was “name three films starring Jean-Claude Van Damme”, chances are the first thing whispered too loudly would be Kickboxer (1989). The martial arts equivalent of Rocky, and a film in which the ‘avenge my family member’ template was set in stone for a generation of Western bargain basement rental titles. It’s undeniably wooden, particularly our subject matter, but Van Damme’s rising profile and impressive choreography was integral in bleeding Eastern fighting styles into Western cinema, and he didn’t stop there.

KICKBOXER, Jean-Claude Van Damme, 1989

Van Damme had happened upon a formula that worked; reluctant fighter forced to use his skills in order to protect the innocent, and in 1990 delivered a double-whammy, first of which was Death Warrant; a rubbish 18-rated cop-goes-to-prison thriller, but it grossed $16m at the US box-office, from a $4m budget, which in today’s money equates to roughly double that amount. For context, look up the domestic returns for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and you’ll have an idea of the growing popularity of Van Damme.

A.W.O.L. (1990) did even better, topping out at $24m domestic, with a tale about an ex-military man (check), who competes in mortal combat (check), in order to provide for his brother’s family (check).

Hollywood had began to take notice of not just the muscles, but the heart, and seen that limited acting ability hadn’t hampered the Austrian Oak’s box-office power, so why not elevate the muscles from Brussels to a similar status?

If Schwarzenegger could pull off a comedy like Twins (1988), then Van Damme would go one better, and duplicate himself in Double Impact (1991). Once again the plot was revenge, as twins separated at birth after the murder of their parents, Van Damme would team up with, erm, Van Damme in order to avenge their deaths. The concept is ludicrous, the execution just as mad, but there’s a unique enjoyment in watching an actor who struggles to perform against other human beings, attempt to do it opposite himself. That’s not in any way meant to be derogatory towards the Belgian, but stated in order to emphasise the ambition of a guy who despite limitations, still pushes himself in such high concept fare as this. It grossed $80m worldwide, and my brother paid $25 for a Blockbuster Video ex-rental, which isn’t to be scoffed at.

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, 1992

If Double Impact was Van Damme doing Twins, then with Universal Soldier he’d realised the best way to harness his skillset of monosyllabic delivery and hard-bodied action mechanics, was to play a killer robot. Directed by Roland Emmerich before he became distracted with bringing about the apocalypse, this was arguably the zenith of Van Damme’s career, in terms of scope ($23m budget) and reception ($100m+ worldwide).

Released in the summer of 1992, it tells the story of deceased Vietnam veterans, Van Damme alongside his video shelf rival, Dolph Lundgren, brought back to life as military weapons. It’s a brutal, hard-R smack down between two of the genres defining stars, which really has stood the test of time. How else would you explain the fact there have been three sequels (The Return, Regeneration, Day of Reckoning) of varying quality?

Van Damme used his profile to headline John Woo’s US debut, Hard Target (1993), which had a doozy of a high concept about hunting humans, before once again returning to the ex-military man well, with the moderately successful Nowhere to Run (1993).

1994 was a pivotal year-of-two-halves for Jean-Claude. He starred in the really-rather-good Peter ‘The Relic’ Hyams time travel action film Timecop (1994). Guess what? A family member has been killed, but this time Van Damme doesn’t just use his fists and occasional roundhouse to take down those responsible. Nope, he can use time travel. It was another $100m grosser for the actor, and is well worth tracking down as a precursor to Minority Report and Deja Vu.

STREET FIGHTER, Kylie Minogue, Jean-Claude Van Damme, 1994

Now, remember a few paragraphs ago when the term ‘street fighter’ was mentioned? Well, here’s the predictable pay-off. Who’d have thought in a world in which “tiger uppercut”, “spinning bird kick”, and “Haduken” were as common as every day greetings, and where Super Mario Bros. failure the year before must have been viewed as a one-off, a Street Fighter movie would turn out as disastrously as Steven E. De Souza’s film did. This guy wrote Die Hard and 48 Hours, and never made another film again.

How it directly harmed Van Damme’s career is up for debate. His finite time may have just come, but as Colonel Guile, who looked nothing like his pixelated counterpart, he was a bad element of a terrible film. He reunited with Peter Hyams a year later for Die Hard in an ice hockey arena thriller, Sudden Death (1995), but by now his appeal seemed to be well into overtime.

There was a cameo in Friends, his 1996 directorial debut The Quest, which was notable only for the appearance of Roger Moore, sank without a trace, and his last sizeable big-screen outing was alongside part-time basketball star, full time circus act, Denis Rodman in Double Team (1997).

Off-screen troubles were punctuated by the self deprecating JCVD (2008), which was part hostage drama, part on-screen therapy, with Van Damme playing himself as a washed up actor. It features a five-minute in-camera monologue that’s strangely impressive.

If it sounds as though this retrospective is ending on a bum note, which would be appropriate because Van Damme is famous for flashing his derrière, then that’s not the intention. By looking back on JCVD’s career, from an uncredited role in forebearer Chuck Norris’s Missing in Action (1984), through to the Ouroboros of Kickboxer: Retaliation (2018), you’re reminded of that fight in the rain as Luc Deveraux, or the tree kicking brutality of Kurt Sloane, and the fact he’s undeniably a movie icon.

Jean-Claude Van Damme can be seen next in Kill ‘em All, a shoot out actioner starring Peter Stormare and Autumn Reeser, released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 22nd January 2018.