The following is a [late] new entry in my ongoing series of rough, free-flowing essays exploring the filmography of Jean Claude Van Damme. This week is a bit more serious, but I welcome comments and want to stress that what I post here is part of a dialogue. You are encouraged to be a part of it.
My feelings about Kickboxer are complicated. They’re probably more complicated than a person’s feelings should be in regards to a 1990 Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle that generally follows the same fighting movie formula of much of his early work. Hell, not only that, they’re more complicated than feelings about anything Jean Claude-related should be.
Something I haven’t discussed much is portrayal of Van Damme’s relationships with women in his films, at least in the films we have examined so far. Of all of the ones I have written about to date, only one featured an actual sex scene involving the Muscles from Brussels, and that movie was Cyborg, and and AND that particular movie gives us an incredibly awkward sex scene that is more likely to make you want to avoid sex than fantasize about it (and maybe we need more sex scenes like that).
In Sudden Death, Van Damme’s character is divorced with two children, so it is at least implied that he had sex a minimum of two times, which is more times than we see him have sex in the movie. There is no love interest and the only damsel in distress is his own little daughter with the annoying proclivity for rubber stamps.
In Street Fighter: The Movie, there are hints of barely more than a high school crush that Cammy might have on Col. Guile, and with the exception of the moment when Chun Li escapes with her ninja skills and JCVD says, “What a woman,” he’s otherwise seemingly asexual. Col. Guile might have some need for romance somewhere in his heart, but he is a military man with a single mission, so no time for love, Doctor Jones.
In Bloodsport, meanwhile, Frank Dux does apparently hook up with the blonde reporter Janice, but – in what can only be described as rare form when it comes to low-budget action films – there is no love scene. We simply jump from Point A – Janice delivering the classic line about just wanting to know him – to Point C, when she wakes up in his bed. No complaints here, just pointing out the oddness of a late 80s movie going in that direction with it. There’s merely implied sex, along with the moment where he scares off the rapey middle eastern dude thats giving Janice trouble.
Lionheart, on the other hand, is a movie that presents a Van Damme with seemingly zero interest in women in general, other than wanting to take care of his widowed sister-in-law and his nice, in a strange set-up at the end where he takes on the role of “Man of the House” now that his brother is dead, but without him showing a love for his sister-in-law outside of the need to take care of her. Him not wanting to sleep with his brother’s wife is actually a surprise to me (yet again) just because of the awkward choices that action movies like this might tend to make. It would be a nice aspect of the film if not for the fact that the entire premise of the resolution to the film is based on the concept that his sister-in-law, as a single mother, is incapable of making a decent living wage or raising her child on her own. She, in macho male fantasy land, can’t survive without a man to take care of her.
This is made only worse when the one other female character in the film not only has wealth and power and domination over men, but is also inexplicably evil and vengeful. We end up getting only two kinds of women in the world of Lionheart: Good girls who need men to take care of them and evil dominant women with no values other than sex and power. Women who use men. You can even come to the logical conclusion that if a woman does become empowered and successful, she will become evil. Not a lot of options for women in this world, apparently.
I wish I could tell you more about the role of women in Cyborg, but you might as well ask me about the roll of shirts, since both appear randomly in the movie and nobody can figure out if they’re important or not (except for the titular cyborg, who is a woman but is also little more than a macguffin that I still haven’t totally figured out the purpose of).
Let me be clear about all of these movies and the observations I just made: I am not complaining about a lack of sex scenes. I am not demanding sex scenes, but rather I want to bring light to the way that JCVD’s characters in most of these films are shown to be almost nonsexual – in some cases even “pure’ or celibate – heroes. Chivalrous might be another word we can throw around, with all of its antiquated baggage. Later Van Damme movies would deviate more from this habit, with a few even including sex scenes complete with gratuitous nudity (Double Impact, Timecop). The other point is that women have limited roles in the stories, mainly existing as one-dimensional trophies that he barely touches on-screen.
Now after all of this, we’re left wandering a strange landscape. In one of these films, we are given the threat of sexual assault (Bloodsport), and we have some “damsels in distress” in others, with a virtuous man-dude who must prove his man-dudeness. So now I guess it’s time to talk about Kickboxer.
Kickboxer follows the tried and true formula of Van Damme having to overcome insurmountable odds via training montages to defeat a seemingly undefeatable bad guy in a one-on-one fight in order to either restore his family’s honor or his own honor (or both) after the bad guy has already brought shame and defeat to a loved one (or Van Damme).
Van Damme’s brother, a cocky American kickboxing champion (real life kickboxing champ Dennis Alexio, complete with mullet and mustache), goes to Thailand to take on their best fighter, and is literally crippled by the fight because he’s a stupid cocky American asshole. Now Van Damme swears vengeance and a restoration of honor by training in the Muay Thai style and fighting the man who broke his brother’s spine, Tong Po.
Van Damme finds a native master of the art who will train him, embarking on an “honorable” macho exercise in cultural appropriation, and along the way falls in love with the master’s niece Mylee.
In some ways we get a more developed relationship between Van Damme and his love interest, despite the fact that they seem to “fall in love” as fast as Zack Morris did in the episode of Saved By The Bell where the Bayside High gets a new (hot) school nurse. It’s pretty fast is what I’m saying. But we see her caring for him and him for her, in a better fashion than we did in Bloodsport.
But then things get out of hand, because apparently this movie was written by a graduate of the Alan Moore-Mark Millar school of writing, and the only way to really show Tong Po as a truly bad guy is to have him kidnap and rape Mylee. Because having him intentionally turn a dude into a paraplegic for the rest of his life isn’t quite evil enough.
But it doesn’t stop there. Due to the fact that in the world of Kickboxer the fight is the most important thing in the universe and a man’s problems are what take precedent when his honor is on the line and his bro’s honor is on the line, Mylee is silent about the rape. She refuses to tell Van Damme, because it will distract him from this fight which is the only thing that matters. Really. This is the logic of the movie, and we end up with a hierarchy of problems. At the top? Van Damme showing that evil Thai dude that Americans can kick his ass. Just below that? Making Van Damme’s brother feel better about life. And below that? Ridding Mylee and her uncle’s village of the criminals that control it. And below that? Winston getting laid! And somewhere below even that? Mylee getting raped.
And then! Of course Van Damme finds out during the fight, allowing him to gain the rage necessary to start kicking Tong Po’s ass. And Tong Po just laughs like the shithead high school bully who just happens to also rape people and break dude’s spines.
Guess what happens next! Van Damme wins, in a shocking turn of events, and everything is better. Everything. Because winning the fight makes it so it’s like Mylee never got raped, right? Right?
I don’t expect high art when I watch a Jean Claude Van Damme movie, and I know I should also not be surprised when rape and women are both treated in this way in action movies from any era, but it doesn’t make it okay and it doesn’t give me the ability to simply overlook it and go, “It’s still an awesome movie, bro.” Because it’s not. You can blame my age and you can blame my politics and you can blame my inability to just “turn off my brain and enjoy something” (seriously, go walk into the ocean if you’re one of those people who says that; just walk straight into the ocean) all you want and write me off as a whiny libtard or whatever, but that still doesn’t change the fact that Kickboxer shits the bed.
This is why my feelings about Kickboxer are complicated, guys.
For the past while I’ve been reading and enjoying a little wrestling fanzine called The Atomic Elbow. TAE is the whole reason I got the urge to buy a sealed box of WCW cards (which led to my short-lived blog adventure, Two Packs a Day), because the awesome dude who makes it — Robert — was packing random cards from that series in with orders when he mailed them out.
So, if you don’t already know, I love wrestling. I love writing. And here was a place where I could potentially get some thoughts down on paper about wrestling topics that interested me. It seemed like a natural idea to submit something, anything, to Robert for his publication.
It took some work, but I managed to put together an essay that I think is worthy of being in The Atomic Elbow. And guess what? Now you can read it in this week’s The Atomic Elbow #7.
How do you get yourself a copy? Well, just follow the link! It’ll set you back a whole $5 in the US, and probably slightly more for international orders?
And guys, this is the only way you will get to read the essay I wrote. Did I mention it includes an illustration by me? Well now consider it mentioned. Neither of these items will be found on this blog. Print exclusive, bitches.
And just in case, here’s a direct link to the Atomic Elbow store front.
The following is the fifth entry in my continuing series of essays examining the filmography of Jean Claude Van Damme. No Legionnaires were consulted for this entry because they were too busy trying to seduce a cat that had accidentally been painted to look like a skunk.
Okay, so you had Bloodsport. Next, you had Kickboxer, which wasn’t exactly the same movie, but was kind of the same (just with 100% more rape). Before and between those you had Van Damme appearing as the bad guy against the likes of a dude from soap operas who knows taekwondo and Sho Motherfucking Kosugi, but like I said, we’re talking about his roles as THE main dude. So the other one is Cyborg (which according to IMDB was secretly edited by JCVD, a thing that in no way surprises me now), and then, after all of those, comes Lionheart.
Much of Kickboxer was pretty much movie dudes going, “Hey, how can we make this more like Bloodsport but also not Bloodsport?” I have more thoughts on Kickboxer, but you’ll have to wait to read those (spoiler: my feelings about it are complicated). On to Lionheart.
Lionheart continues this fine tradition of finding bizarre ways to get Van Damme to fight a lot of dudes and kick guys in the face, during a time when the best idea was still “put him in some kind of fighting tournament,” or essentially putting him in a less intellectual Rocky movie. But, see, Lionheart gets tricky with it.
It starts out similarly to Bloodsport, with Van Damme as a military guy who goes AWOL and evades his military bosses by escaping to a foreign land. But see, it gets all kinds of “this shit is too fucking clever for a 1990 Van Damme movie,” because guess what? The foreign country he escapes to is America!
And it sucks!
Instead of flying an airplane to Hong Kong, staying in a nice hotel room, playing karate video games against giant awesome bearded American dudes, and scaring rapey middle eastern men away from the reporter who obviously wants to “know” him, ol’ Jeany baby gets to escape to America illegally on a boat, sleep on the streets, and do a lot of nothing because he has no money.
Instead of coming to a foreign land to compete in a glorious battle that brings with it high prestige, he gets to come to a foreign land where nobody gives a shit about him and he’s forced into street fighting just to get by.
It’s like a shitty Bizarro Kumite. I think maybe the prize is that Republicans will give the winner a free pass while they kill the rest of the homeless population.
See, I’m already getting ahead of myself here. Let’s go back to the beginning…
So Jean Claude’s brother is living in America. I guess in this he and his brother are French, and Jean Claude is in the French Foreign Legion, which according to this movie is apprently where they send criminals to finish out their sentences instead of jail (although from what I’ve gathered the Legion doesn’t actually do this anymore, but did at one point in their history; of course, I don’t know the Legion all that well, except that I do know they’re some tough dudes and they occasionally enlist rapey skunks during wartime). Jean Claude used to be a drug dealer or something, and that’s why he got in trouble.
The only reason why any of this matters is because his brother (who lives with an American wife and kid in LA) gets set on fire by bad dudes (not to be confused with Bad Dudes) and needs JCVD to be at his bedside because, you know, they’re bros.
So yeah, Van Damme escapes the Legion to go to America to see his brother who is probably dying but he doesn’t have any money or anything (and he’s stuck in New York, major important detail right there) so he discovers what seem to be a lot of black dudes with some white dudes peppered in fighting “Fight Club” style under a bridge for money. He steps in, wins, earns money, and now we have Van Damme as an actual street fighter instead of a GI Joe (but still not a Street Fighter).
Like Kickboxer, he gets an older sidekick guy, who helps him on his journey. Also, like Kickboxer, the character is black and sounds pretty much like a racist cartoon (but I’ll tell you, this guy has a few more “tender” moments than the crazed Vietnam vet in Kickboxer) for most of the time.
So Jean Claude has money from winning some fights, but he needs more money. This is when the movie takes a bizarre turn, and we find JCVD moving up to the next level of underground fighting rings. This one, you see, is run by rich – mostly white – people. Late 80s-style rich white people, complete with awful shiny suits and douchey haircuts and girls with big awful hair.
When rich people aren’t making millions of dollars off of trading other people’s money, they gotta cut loose and have a good time. They gotta have some entertainment.
So apparently at night they hang out in parking garages at fancy important business buildings and watch poor people beat the shit out of each other. And the whole thing is run by an evil pretty blonde with short hair and lots of money and Shao Khan from Mortal Kombat Annihilation as her lackey.
Van Damme beats their guy and makes more money, and then finally goes to LA. So it’s like we’re moving on with the movie’s central plot. But wait!
Van Damme gets to LA and guess what? His brother is dead already, and his bro’s wife hates him. End of movie.
Except not! Jean Claude then gets back to the rich-person underground fighting circuit, which has an LA chapter (West Coast Shitty Kumite Avengers assemble) I guess? Anyway, the evil pretty blonde actually runs this one, too, and she’s trying really hard to get Jean Claude to bone her (and she’s horrible at it).
This is all we know about her, and keep in mind she’s one of only two major female characters (not counting JC’s niece): We know she is insanely rich; we know she has power and controls these fights; we know that she wants Van Damme to make whoopie with her. That’s pretty much it. We know she’s not nice, she doesn’t show much concern for other people, but otherwise? She’s hot for Jean Claude until he rebuffs her, at which point she decides she doesn’t like him anymore and he should die a horrible death being beaten to a pulp by an unimpressive, big, hairy dude with sideburns.
Meanwhile, JC is socking money away and secretly giving it to his brother’s widow without her knowing it’s coming from him and blah blah blah blah it’s pretty predicatable from this point. Then there’s a big fight (there always is!) and our resolution.
That big hairy dude with the sideburns? Yeah, that’s the big final fight, and honestly this guy doesn’t impress me because doesn’t seem to do anything I haven’t seen Chong Li do better, and we all saw how Chong Li faired against JCVD. Point being, despite the fact that the Dammster takes a seriously brutal beating (one of the worse I’ve seen), you know how it’s going to end. And then the Legion dudes catch him and then let him go because I guess they’re not total dicks (all part of the Prench Foreign Legion’s big 1990 recruitment drive, with their new slogan, “The French Foreign Legion: Because We’re Not Total Dicks”). However, I’m not sure how they plan to explain to their superior officers why they let him go. Sacre bleu!
Guys, this movie was fucking weird and dumb and bonkers and insane and awesome.
Every fight scene was pretty much something I’ve seen done (or would expect to see done) on Regular Show, but with the added bonus of KICKS TO THE FUCKING FACE. There’s a fight in a garage in LA where he and his opponent are surrounded by rich people cars (like, those fancy ones with the sloping lines and shiny grilles driven by men in top hats and monocles) with their headlights on. There’s a fight where he and his opponent are in a mostly-empty swimming pool (this one threw me off because usually fights in drained pools are, like, a punk rock thing. Then there’s a fight in a racquetball court. Or maybe it was a squash court. I honestly can’t tell the difference. Somebody tell me!
What can I take away from this movie? What will stick with me, years from now?
I have no fucking idea. But Jean Claude Van Damme sure knows how to kick dudes.
The following is the fourth in my series of meaningless written explorations of the movies of Jean Claude Van Damme, the Muscles from Brussels. While today is a Wednesday, I originally wrote this on a Tuesday (and not one of my better Tuesdays, at that). Because, you know, I have to explain everything. It’s what I do. It’s why I’m such a buzzkill at parties.
Compared to General M. Bison, I have had a pretty lousy Tuesday. It wasn’t the worst Tuesday, mind you, but it was a Tuesday that found me overworked and exhausted, feeling more like a Thursday than a Tuesday. I didn’t get to invade any villages, murder anybody’s fathers, pillage or plunder, I didn’t even have the opportunity to chew any scenery the way that Raul Julia does in his final film role in Street Fighter: The Movie.
Street Fighter gets it. While most of us who grew up with the massive insane phenomenon that was Street Fighter II (and SF II Turbo and SF II Championship Edition and Super SF II, etc. etc. etc.) remember seeing the movie and feeling slightly gypped by the deviations from the source material (Blanka as a failed super soldier experiment? Dhalsim as a scientist played by that sleazy dude from the cult of Khali in Tempe of Doom? T-Hawk as a scrawny commando dude with a headband?), there was still something inherently rad about Jean Claude Van Damme flexing his American Flag-tattooed biceps and executing ridiculous jumpkicks at Gomez Addams. It just took some of us 15 to 20 years to figure it out.
Street Fighter is widely considered to be pure, absolute commercial crap, but I’ll tell you what: It’s still to this day the best GI Joe movie I’ve seen. Digest that for a second.
Okay, ready? We’ve now had two (TWO) live action GI Joe movies. Both have been pretty bad as far as movies go, with the second one showing a marked improvement in terms of presenting something that actually resembles the GI Joe that we grew up with. Dwayne “Rocky Maiavia” Johnson makes for a passable Roadblock who looks the part more than acts it, Cobra Commander’s past as Duke’s best pal Rex is all but erased from memory (along with the dubious handling of the Baroness, who is never mentioned), there’s some totally tubular ninja action that steals the entire movie, and even Channing Tatum’s 8 minutes of footage is actually likeable and endearing in a “bros hanging out” kind of way. It’s much, much closer to GI Joe than the first flick, for certain, but let’s be fair: LOST’s Josh Holloway in a sailor suit arguing with a parrot for 90 minutes would still make for a better GI Joe movie.
But Street Fighter? Now that’s a GI Joe movie!
Guile is Duke. He delivers Duke speeches. His subordinates put all of their faith and loyalty in him the way that Scarlett, Flint, and the rest would do the same with Duke. Even when he fakes his own death, people react the way everyone reacts in the animated Joe flick when Duke “goes into a coma.”
I don’t care if he has a Belgian accent, Van Damme is Duke.
A power mad warlord who spends every second of screen time maniacally boasting and yelling orders at incompetent minions? A bad guy who enacts ridiculous schemes, prints his own money, develops fringe scientific experiments to create the perfect soldier, holds the world for ransom, and even seriously considers kidnapping the Queen of England while also planning a massive shopping mall in the shape of his army’s insignia? Is there a way for Bison to be more like the actual Cobra Commander?
Even Sagat makes for a better Destro than the one we got in Rise of Cobra. As an arms dealer aligned with Bison but barely trusting his partner, all Sagat really needs is a metal mask and a Russian aristocrat on his arm.
As an aside, I think in Steven De Souza’s mind, Sagat’s line, “In Shadaloo City, no one tells me anything,” sounded more impressive than it really sounds out loud. Sagat sounds like he’s the last to know about anything in the town he purportedly runs. “Nobody tells me ANYTHING! Gawwwd!”
I will freely admit that my GI Joe comparisons pretty much end there. I’m a massive GI Joe nerd, and know my shit forwards and backwards, but I have the damnedest time trying to find more analogues among the characters in Street Fighter: The Movie.
Kylie Minogue’s Cammy doesn’t really make for a very good Scarlett or Lady Jaye, but then she also doesn’t have a gratuitous undressing scene like Jaye has in Retaliation nor is she the object of male competition the way that Scarlett is in Rise of Cobra. She also does more in the movie than Cover Girl does before getting killed in Rise of Cobra, so she has that going for her as well.
T-Hawk, meanwhile, could be Flint as one of Guile’s right-hand people, but his character development has just as much depth as Flint’s in Retaliation.
As for characters who actually do are better developed in Street Fighter, it’s difficult to match them up to anybody in GI Joe.
Regardless, there is another important factor that makes Street Fighter the best live action GI Joe movie: the tone.
While sure, Larry Hama’s stories in the comics were more serious in tone when compared to the adventures depicted in the Sunbow cartoons, let’s be fair: they were still pretty goofy, and how could they not be when your job is to fit a testicle-crushing amount of different, ridiculous toys into every issue? Regardless of the tone that Hama attempted, GI Joe, in all of its media incarnations before the “Real American Hero” era of the toyline ended in the mid-90s, was jingoistic, hokey, over-the-top and filled to the brim with simple idealism.
This is where Street Fighter blows the recent actual GI Joe movies out of the water. Street Fighter is the product of mass commercialization and, admittedly, a manufactured sense of idealism that we all got to experience in the pre-9/11 world, but because it comes before the era of the “War on Terror,” it doesn’t feel the need to be “realistic,” or to let itself be bound by modern studio executives’ perceptions that everything has to be grim.
This is a movie where the good guys are essentially U.N. Peacekeepers (called the “Allied Nations” in the movie), in an optimistic world where the U.N. is incredibly effective and there apparently aren’t insane right-wing nutjobs that think the U.N. is a vast “one world government” conspiracy. It’s a movie where the commando dudes are all nice, freethinking, open-minded and surprisingly liberal when they aren’t invading a country and overthrowing its dictator in a fairly gung-ho neoconservative manner (“Now who wants to go home, and who wants to go WITH ME?!”). This is a movie where embedded TV journalists are apparently secretly kung-fu badasses. With all of these things, and with the premise of a war-torn southeast Asian country occupied by commandos, it’s still somehow kind of happy-go-lucky.
And while it certainly oozes with machismo, it’s a kind of machismo that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a Jean Claude Van Damme cartoon, not no-homo brodawg entertainment for guys in Affliction tees.
This is not to say that it has any more heart than the actual live-action GI Joe movies we have received to date: all are products of clueless studios looking for big money (no Whammies), with filmmakers who feel like they can somehow come up with something better than the source material they’ve been handed.
While Street Fighter is a great GI Joe movie, it’s an absolutely shitty Street Fighter movie.
In all the ways that Resident Evil and Doom fail as adaptations of the video games they’re named for, even in the ways that GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra failed as a GI Joe movie, so is Street Fighter an awful adaptation of its source material. Granted, it’s better than the more recent Legend of Chun-Li starring the hollow, emotionless doe-eyed girl from television’s Totally Not Superboy, but that’s not a surprise. What could be worse? (Answer: that Dragonball Z movie with the narc that totally screwed John Locke.)
Especially when you take into consideration the number of movies JCVD has starred in that feature him partaking in some kind of fighting tournament, it’s utterly bizarre that they attach him to a property like this and then give us a GI Joe movie instead. My assumption? De Souza’s only actual exposure to Street Fighter prior to writing the screenplay was probably just a pile of the Street Fighter GI Joe figures Hasbro put out. I picture him being walked into a meeting room at Universal and then a pair of Hasbro reps in clown suits run in and dump a wheelbarrow full of Sonic Boom Tanks on him.
As far as Jean Claude Van Damme movies go? It’s obviously not his best, but it does deliver two key Van Dammisms in spades: dick-exploding kicks and vomit-inducing one-liners.
Watch Street Fighter: The Movie. Love it. Revel in how many times you nearly shit your pants at its greatness/badness.