The Summer of Van Damme

Jean-Claude Van Damme is currently having a quiet career comeback -- nay, reinvention -- this summer largely thanks to his role in The Expendables 2.

It's not that the guy has ever stopped making films. In fact, it's almost the opposite -- since 1988, Van Damme starred as the lead in over 30 films. He's continued to be prolific long after most movie watchers assumed that his career stalled out.

What's remarkable about his vast body of action films is that he's played the lead in almost every single one of them, beginning with his first hit, Bloodsport. With the exception of a couple of brief cameos in the mid-00s, this held true for over 20 solid years of his career.

In his first few film roles, Jean-Claude had relatively small parts. I mean, he's fantastically entertaining as the weird dancing guy in a Breakin' crowd scene, but I think it's safe to say that it's a forgettable entry on his resume. I view this era as the first chapter of his career.

In my eyes, the second chapter of his career began with his legendary recut of Bloodsport, a movie filmed in 1984 but released in 1988 after Van Damme supposedly pushed for a re-edit. It's a breathtaking martial arts film that perfectly straddles the line between b-movie and blockbuster.

I don't know if Van Damme purposely set out to always play the lead after his first hit film, but that's exactly what he did. I could drop all of the names of the amazing and unusual movies from this second chapter of his career, but I'd rather just direct you to my Jean-Claude Van Damme Movie Review Master List, a single blog post containing Tweet-sized encapsulations of these flicks.

I view 2008's JCVD as the spiritual conclusion to the massive middle chapter of Jean-Claude's movie career. It's a brilliant film in which the real-life action star becomes a fictional action hero under the pretense of the fact that he's a real-life actor. Très meta.

However, last year's Universal Soldier: Regeneration is the chronological end of that chapter. While he's only in about half of the film, he plays the emotional anchor and his presence tends to mark the climactic moments of the story.

Following that logic, Kung Fu Panda 2 is the beginning of the third chapter of Jean-Claude Van Damme's career, marking his mainstream embrace of ensemble and/or supporting roles.

His current mini career rebirth is unquestionably due to the fact that he's begun to accept parts below the top billing. And while I think that's fantastic for his legacy, it's kind of a bummer for die-hard Van Damme fans like myself.

That's not to say that I don't understand his new career direction -- it makes perfect sense to me. And, frankly, I'm surprised it took him so damn long to start taking roles like the villain in The Expendables 2.

But just because I'm understanding doesn't mean I'm pleased. I'm going to miss his often absurd but almost always heartfelt lead performances.

The reason I'm writing this piece is because I watched Dragon Eyes, a new film featuring Van Damme listed in the top spot. It's an average direct-to-video action film, featuring some decent fight scenes and tedious dramatic moments... and very little Van Damme.

In Dragon Eyes, Van Damme plays Tiano, a mysterious prison inmate who trains the lead character, played by Cung Le. Tiano spouts nonsensical aphorisms, not unlike the real-life Jean-Claude, who has a reputation for saying ridiculous phrases with steely conviction.

While it's fun to see him turn his penchant for confusing fortune cookie quotes into a character, it's not a lead role by any means. I would venture to say that it's truly misleading to have Van Damme's name in the top spot in Dragon Eyes. He's just not in it enough to warrant that presence.

I assume that the filmmakers decided to bank on Van Damme's increased profile to bring attention to Dragon Eyes. Makes sense to me as a business decision. But as a fan, this is the first time I can genuinely say that a movie advertising Jean-Claude Van Damme in the lead does not feature Jean-Claude Van Damme in the lead.

Maybe I'm grieving Van Damme's headlining days too soon. I'm sure he'll have more starring roles. But from the looks of things on his IMDB profile, his increased activity is largely due to the fact that he's accepting supporting roles.

Anyway, I'll be enjoying the Summer of Van Damme as it happens, pleased to see quotes like "doing the splits like he never stopped working" or "seemingly back from the dead" popping up throughout movie reviews of The Expendables 2. But as a fan, I'm going to officially mourn the end of an era of leading roles for the man who preposterously managed to hold onto the top spot in all of his movies long after anybody thought he could do it.

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