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.