Total Recall

Rank Jean-Claude Van Damme's 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at the best-reviewed films of the Kickboxer: Retaliation star.

by | January 24, 2018 | Comments

Jean-Claude Van Damme made his name in the early ’80s and early ’90s by starring in a series of action hits that made him look like a real tough guy, but he really proved that strength in the years that followed, persisting through direct-to-DVD purgatory after the genre started to fade at the box office. It’s paid off with an unlikely second act for the Muscles from Brussels, who’s seen his profile rebound over the last decade while turning in some of his most critically well-received work. Limber up and oil those pecs, film fans — it’s time for Total Recall!


1. JCVD (2008) 84%

(Photo by Peace Arch Entertainment Group courtesy Everett Collection)

Van Damme’s larger-than-life persona and frequently ill-advised offscreen exploits made him a magnet for schadenfreude after the action boom ended, but to his credit, he was able to have a sense of humor about his fall from grace — as evidenced by the down-on-his-luck version of “Jean-Claude Van Damme” he played in 2008’s JCVD, earning some of the best reviews of his career in the process. While the setup retains elements of your average Van Damme action thriller — a seemingly ordinary guy heads into the bank to make a transfer, only to discover he’s stumbled into a stickup — that’s really just the opening for a sharp, ruefully funny drama with a meta layer that allows its star to publicly come to terms with the highs and lows of his real-life past. “By pitting JCVD the axiom against JCVD the person, JCVD deconstructs and deepens the understanding of both,” wrote Christopher Huber for Cinema Scope. “It is nothing if not a triumph of humanism.”


2. Enemies Closer (2013) 79%

(Photo by Simon Varsano/Lionsgate)

There’s a certain element of self-aware irony to some of the better-reviewed efforts Van Damme has filmed in recent years, but he’s still capable of anchoring a straight up action thriller, even if the market for the genre isn’t what it once was. Witness Enemies Closer, which sees him reuniting with Timecop director Peter Hyams for the story of a forest ranger/ex-SEAL (Tom Everett Scott) whose life-or-death conflict with a former fellow officer’s brother (Orlando Jones) is interrupted by the arrival of a drug smuggler (Van Damme) determined to plunder a recently downed plane. Had it been released during his heyday, this might have become one of Van Damme’s biggest hits; as Michael Nordine argued for the Village Voice, “Enemies Closer is the first collaboration between Peter Hyams and Jean-Claude Van Damme since 1995’s Sudden Death. The reunion feels long overdue.”


3. The Expendables 2 (2012) 67%

(Photo by Frank Masi/Lionsgate)

It isn’t really an action hero party until Jean-Claude Van Damme is invited — something Sylvester Stallone evidently realized while putting together Expendables 2, the first sequel to his over-the-top all-star tribute to the genre. Successfully wooed for the follow-up after reportedly rejecting an opportunity to star in the original, Van Damme joined the well-muscled ensemble as Jean Vilain, a descriptively named bad guy who leads an opposing band of mercenaries in the fight against Barney Ross (Stallone) and his crew of aging heroes. Like the first installment, Expendables 2 did pretty much what it said on the tin, and was rewarded with positive if not effusive reviews; as Sean Burns wrote for Philadelphia Weekly, “Of course it’s garbage. But this is my favorite kind of garbage.”


4. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012) 56%

(Photo by Magnet Releasing)

A late-period sci-fi/action hit whose bloom into franchise status was derailed by studio problems and changing trends, 1992’s Universal Soldier starred Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as a pair of Vietnam soldiers who died in the war, only to be brought back to life as technologically advanced killing machines. A pair of TV movies continued the story without the original stars, only to be wiped out of canon by a belated theatrical sequel, 1999’s Universal Soldier: The Return, which did without Lundgren and made Van Damme’s character an ordinary human; when that didn’t stick, 2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration reunited both leads and ignored everything but the original. Given its messy history, one could hardly expect the fourth theatrical installment in the series to be met with anything but critical mockery and disdain, but the pundits actually found 2012’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning to be a fairly solid effort, at least in the context of the genre. “Day of Reckoning is somehow not just the best film in the series,” marveled the Atlantic’s Ian Buckwalter, “but a damn fine piece of action filmmaking by any measure.”


5. Sudden Death (1995) 50%

(Photo by Universal Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Sure, it’s a Die Hard knockoff — but the same could be said of an arguable majority of all action movies released during the ’90s, and whatever its ills, Sudden Death is hardly the worst of the lot. As with most of Van Damme’s movies, Death casts him as an unlikely hero (in this case, a member of the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau) thrown into a hostile situation and forced to save the day. The mid ’90s represented the end of the stock action flick’s dominance at the box office, and an era in which the action had to be taken to preposterous heights in order to stand out — which is why Sudden Death features, among other things, Van Damme brawling with the Pittsburgh Penguins mascot and engaging in hand-to-hand combat on the roof of Civic Arena as it opens. It’s all very silly, of course, but given that it was written by the wife of Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, it could be argued that the movie transcended expectations. Though most critics were somewhat reserved in their praise, Sudden Death boasts some of the best reviews of Van Damme’s career; in the words of Channel 4 Film’s James Jennings, it offers “all the thrills, spills and stuff blowing up that action fans relish.”


6. Hard Target (1993) 58%

(Photo by Universal Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

If you’re the sort of filmgoer who believes in guilty pleasures, 1993’s Hard Target has a pedigree that’s difficult to resist. Not only does it star Lance Henriksen, Yancy Butler, and Wilford Brimley, but it represents John Woo’s American directorial debut, was executive produced by Sam Raimi, and gives a pivotal role to its screenwriter, Chuck Pfarrer. Oh, and did we mention that Van Damme stars as Chance Boudreaux, a mulleted, gumbo-loving drifter who was raised in the bayou? Most of Van Damme’s movies are not without unintentional laughs, but it’s awfully hard to beat his silly New Orleans “accent” here — or, for that matter, Brimley’s appearance as Van Damme’s crusty uncle Douvee. Still, how can you seriously argue with a movie that ends with the hero stuffing a live grenade in the villain’s pants? Answer: You cannot. Most critics were unswayed by Hard Target, but Woo earned praise for his distinctive style, and Van Damme was at his peak: As Kevin N. Laforest of the Montreal Film Journal noted, the star’s “kicks and flips never looked so cool.”


7. Timecop (1994) 42%

(Photo by MCA Universal courtesy Everett Collection)

In a career dotted with cult classics, 1994’s Timecop manages to stand out as one of the cultiest. And okay, so it’s hard to call a movie that raked in more than $100 million worldwide a “cult” picture — but if you’ve seen the way Timecop takes a cool premise (time travel, natch) and renders it both impenetrably complicated and irrelevant to the action, you know it’s essentially the very definition of the term. (Also, it stars Ron Silver.) The plot is full of holes, but as the filmmakers knew, once you accept the notion of Jean-Claude Van Damme as an officer of the Time Enforcement Commission, you can buy into pretty much anything, and by the time you get to Timecop‘s final act — in which past and future versions of Van Damme battle past and future versions of Silver — you’ve reached that wonderful place where the laws of logic no longer exist. The highest-grossing movie of Van Damme’s career, Timecop spun off a sequel, a short-lived television show, and even a series of books. Not bad for a movie that Roger Ebert described as “the kind of movie that is best not thought about at all, for that way madness lies.”


8. The Kickboxer Movies

(Photo by Cannon Films courtesy Everett Collection)

Van Damme came on strong during the action-heavy late ’80s, closing out the decade with a flurry of martial arts-fueled efforts whose steely titles (Bloodsport; No Retreat, No Surrender) and beefcake-riddled poster art made them irresistible to genre enthusiasts and seemingly interchangeable to detractors. He reached his arguable peak during the era with 1989’s Kickboxer, a movie that saw him contributing to the story as well as choreographing fight scenes. A modestly budgeted hit, it spawned a franchise that kept right on kickboxing through a series of sequels even though Van Damme departed after the original. By the mid-’90s, it stood at five installments; in 2016, the whole saga was rebooted with Kickboxer: Vengeance, which brought Van Damme back — this time as supporting player Master Durand — and managed to earn reviews roughly on par with the middling critical reception afforded the original. “Vengeance is well-crafted good fun,” wrote Variety’s Dennis Harvey, “and good proof that you don’t need more than two hours or $100 million to give ticket buyers their money’s worth in popcorn thrills.”


9. Bloodsport (1988) 46%

(Photo by Cannon Films courtesy Everett Collection)

It’s really hard to know where to begin with this one. Do we talk about the (alleged) real-life exploits of early MMA star Frank W. Dux, whose accounts of his underground tournament achievements formed the partial basis for the film? Do we talk about the work of a young Forest Whitaker as a military policeman sent to track down our hero Van Damme? Or how about the soundtrack contributions from Michael J. Bishop and Stan “The Touch” Bush? There are so many reasons to love 1988’s Bloodsport, but if we’re forced to choose just one, we’ll have to go with the simple fact that this is where it all began for the Muscles from Brussels — and if you want to see the man in all of his young, helicopter-kicking glory, this is the place to go. It wasn’t a big box office success, but its overwhelming reliance on action, action, and more action won it a number of converts, both critical and otherwise; the New Times’ Luke Y. Thompson referred to Bloodsport as “proudly plotless in a way that other low-budget actioners ought to emulate more often,” and it spawned three sequels — two of which starred Pat Morita. There are reasons why this movie is so beloved that copies of the soundtrack have fetched over $100 on the used market. Not good reasons, mind you, but reasons nonetheless.


10. Maximum Risk (1996) 32%

(Photo by Columbia Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Here, Van Damme does for Ringo Lam what he did for John Woo with 1993’s Hard Target: Namely, kick off a Hong Kong director’s American career with a roundly panned action movie that lacks much of the character and style that made said director famous. Perhaps sensing that Van Damme’s years as a reliable box-office draw were drawing to a close, the filmmakers teamed him up with Species star Natasha Henstridge, and although the critical results were predictably scathing, the commercial returns were initially favorable: Maximum Risk debuted in the Number One spot during its opening weekend. Its box office reign was brief, and its final American tally came in under $15 million, but for a handful of critics, Risk was not without its charms: Variety’s Leonard Klady, for instance, referred to it as “a visceral delight that refuses to be deterred by niceties of plot or character consistency and prefers sweat to emotion” — a nice way of saying that the storyline isn’t worth addressing, which is why we won’t bother to do so here.

Pages: Prev 1 2

Tag Cloud

Elton John football Year in Review monster movies name the review Cosplay binge aapi Hallmark period drama Bravo new zealand El Rey renewed TV shows rom-coms sequel Set visit cults Brie Larson spider-verse FXX venice Turner Red Carpet Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt MCU Starz Hear Us Out TCA 2017 space scene in color reviews movie book Fargo BBC Heroines 2021 based on movie indie San Diego Comic-Con WarnerMedia Musicals miniseries lord of the rings documentaries french Television Academy GLAAD zombie Winners Certified Fresh Watching Series Marathons singing competition Box Office twilight Pacific Islander talk show aliens 79th Golden Globes Awards Biopics Crackle halloween tv USA Network romantic comedy IFC Films game show chucky Podcast Crunchyroll TV Land Tubi Britbox Mystery Grammys Freeform elevated horror President police drama all-time Apple TV+ stoner Neflix comiccon Sony American Society of Cinematographers Arrowverse Tomatazos Toys trophy 45 ABC Family satire Instagram Live criterion halloween The Walking Dead king kong cartoon TCA Awards deadpool suspense Family Comics on TV jamie lee curtis toronto Marvel Studios festival Marvel TV movies Lifetime Christmas movies Spectrum Originals young adult MSNBC Amazon Prime Video Classic Film spanish language 1990s Discovery Channel Native adaptation summer TV preview best cancelled TV series animated spain The Walt Disney Company cancelled TV shows Captain marvel Disney streaming service Paramount Network mutant revenge ratings art house dreamworks hispanic screenings theme song 2016 SXSW Baby Yoda serial killer Reality james bond justice league OneApp asian-american fresh thriller Academy Awards teaser VOD live event psychological thriller Ellie Kemper rotten movies we love Columbia Pictures Marvel Television Alien FX on Hulu Best Actor Indigenous Rock FX Tarantino NBC Election Broadway breaking bad spy thriller harry potter Animation Nominations YouTube Red mob comic books cars AMC Comic Book Country Hulu popular Oscars dramedy blockbuster quibi Christmas Tokyo Olympics Creative Arts Emmys Television Critics Association APB ABC Signature latino Walt Disney Pictures video rotten Polls and Games jurassic park marvel cinematic universe rt archives 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards historical drama robots news Writers Guild of America TV SXSW 2022 natural history Universal Acorn TV concert anime new york Western Teen HFPA comic book movies zero dark thirty what to watch children's TV TNT japanese The CW dogs high school Mary Tyler Moore south america PBS PlayStation 2015 MTV Pop TV Sci-Fi leaderboard technology CW Seed worst movies scene in color series Wes Anderson 73rd Emmy Awards adenture live action Rocketman pirates of the caribbean 21st Century Fox screen actors guild IFC spider-man Disney Channel Logo directors Extras Mary poppins Sneak Peek cancelled television Drama Turner Classic Movies 2017 black comedy slashers hollywood NBA Hollywood Foreign Press Association heist movie 007 king arthur spinoff Emmy Nominations 72 Emmy Awards Prime Video crime drama Pixar Holiday finale Lifetime BBC One WGN Shondaland Video Games versus Ghostbusters sequels Sony Pictures classics book adaptation Emmys Tumblr kids dragons Netflix Christmas movies doctor who Apple TV Plus discovery universal monsters 94th Oscars 93rd Oscars sports Rocky hispanic heritage month trailers batman Amazon target critics Peacock remakes 24 frames disaster Amazon Studios Lionsgate PaleyFest Film Festival Oscar biopic Thanksgiving ITV summer preview Trailer scorecard AMC Plus Star Wars Best Director strong female leads mission: impossible target scene in color The Purge international sopranos SundanceTV LGBT ABC DC Universe Paramount Plus Music CMT Lucasfilm cats 20th Century Fox E! CBS All Access Calendar cancelled Countdown christmas movies blaxploitation festivals comic action-comedy Sundance Now toy story Fox News DC streaming service feel good Masterpiece supernatural Kids & Family Dark Horse Comics interviews science fiction cops HBO Max docuseries new star wars movies Martial Arts comic book movie werewolf Trophy Talk scene in color film series know your critic free movies unscripted DirecTV TruTV indiana jones politics Comic-Con@Home 2021 video on demand tv talk Geeked Week Shudder Chernobyl dark Exclusive Video Food Network series Universal Pictures obituary anthology Adult Swim nbcuniversal golden globes First Look Women's History Month Vudu Horror diversity blockbusters stand-up comedy Quiz saw 2019 Image Comics Summer Sundance true crime telelvision summer TV docudrama cooking BET Disney+ Disney Plus sag awards Holidays prank Avengers CBS A24 HBO VICE Super Bowl movies godzilla Infographic scary movies romance Film Superheroe TV renewals social media Comedy crime X-Men Nickelodeon comics Pet Sematary crime thriller 90s italian Best Actress franchise Spike genre superhero Reality Competition Star Wars Celebration Fantasy Spring TV olympics Character Guide RT21 marvel comics boxing green book streaming See It Skip It stop motion ViacomCBS transformers Warner Bros. composers die hard TCM parents emmy awards VH1 Best Picture sitcom Mudbound political drama LGBTQ mockumentary documentary Disney basketball hidden camera Pirates rt labs TCA E3 hist Apple canceled TV shows laika 71st Emmy Awards Paramount Pictures Hallmark Christmas movies YA kong YouTube Premium Star Trek Chilling Adventures of Sabrina streamig Musical Rom-Com nfl game of thrones debate golden globe awards scary dc Pride Month Song of Ice and Fire Valentine's Day Opinion TIFF Binge Guide TCA Winter 2020 biography ID SDCC 2018 Anna Paquin BBC America award winner Sundance TV posters Travel Channel Endgame fast and furious child's play 2020 comedies critic resources boxoffice GoT Disney Plus HBO Go Funimation A&E reboot New York Comic Con Syfy NYCC war ghosts Photos Tags: Comedy foreign Awards Tour facebook The Witch RT History a nightmare on elm street Legendary Fall TV richard e. Grant spanish slasher Action The Academy TV One 4/20 Cannes FOX independent Paramount cinemax travel YouTube legend Winter TV royal family Esquire Superheroes National Geographic gangster wonder woman Awards BAFTA IMDb TV psycho South by Southwest Film Festival nature crossover kaiju adventure The Arrangement broadcast Mary Poppins Returns obi wan witnail zombies Black History Month Stephen King dceu dexter canceled women Epix mcc ESPN films USA Premiere Dates Showtime vs. television joker Best and Worst Schedule BET Awards casting australia CNN Ovation Trivia Black Mirror Nat Geo Comedy Central DC Comics rt labs critics edition OWN Amazon Prime DGA worst First Reviews razzies TLC superman GIFs MGM Fox Searchlight vampires 99% japan black Pop streaming movies History TBS medical drama Focus Features Cartoon Network Interview Mindy Kaling archives Netflix