("Scanlines" wishes to thank Encore Movies & Music, I [Heart] Video, and Vulcan Video for their help in providing videos and laser discs.)

The many faces of Van Damme





Hard Target
D: John Woo (1993)
with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lance Henriksen, Yancy Butler, Kasi Lemmons, Wilford Brimley

Maximum Risk
D: Ringo Lam (1996)
with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Natasha
Henstridge, Mark McKinney

Double Team
D: Tsui Hark (1997)
with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman, Mickey Rourke

For people like myself who came of age in the undemanding post-Rambo era, it's bewildering that the likes of John Wayne, Charlton Heston, and Steve McQueen were once considered bad actors. They were all magnificent compared to the current crop of action heroes, who are so marginally talented that they have to be carefully posed and reposed from shot to shot like Jayne Mansfield. They are given simple, throwaway dialogue that can survive their flat line-readings and/or thick accents. Ultimately, they have forced American action movies to adopt a farcical, self-deprecating tone that anticipates and defuses the criticisms of the audience. With this literally foolproof new formula, a savvy producer with $50 million to burn could make an action hero out of Henry Kissinger. A child could do it. A mannequin could do it.

Jean-Claude Van Damme can't do it.

As anyone who's ever seen one of his movies can tell you, the Mussel from Brussels is the cinematic equivalent of a black hole. Van Damme's ineptitude isn't just campy ó it's astonishing. He is so utterly lacking in charisma and screen presence that he makes simple actions like nodding or walking look phony. His accent sounds like an overblown, amateurish imitation of Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther films. He tops it all off with an ego that's bigger than the Belgian Congo ó in all of his movies, the action stops intermittently so that our hero can preen and flex like a Solid Gold dancer.

Van Damme, perhaps realizing that he would always be relegated to fourth-tier status within Hollywood, enlisted Hong Kong's finest action directors for an image makeover. John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark all made heroic attempts to spin flax into gold, but not even an intervention by the deities of all five major world religions could save the Flemish Blemish from himself.

V.D. obviously conceived Hard Target as a vanity project, but he comes off goonier than ever in it. His godawful hairdo alone is worth the rental price ó it's sort of a Billy Ray Cyrus Jheri Kurl. His perverse inflections wreck every line of dialogue. (When he's accosted by some knife-wielding thugs, he says: "Take your peegstick, and your boyfrand, and fond a booze to catch.") John Woo was forced to recut in order to place more emphasis on Van Damme's butt, but he was also allowed to use all of his signature effects. Some bits and pieces of action are better than anything the director has done since. Best scenes: an erotically charged reunion between Van Damme and his long-lost shotgun (he blows dust off of the barrel in super-slow motion), and later, Van Damme blasting away with said shotgun while riding an enormous papier-mâché stork. (The apotheosis of Woo's bizarre fetish for bird imagery.)

V.D. gets to play twins in Maximum Risk, just like he did in Double Impact. Ringo Lam stages characteristically blunt, brutal fight scenes in strip joints, Turkish baths, and meat lockers; he even dusts off his trademark whizzing-bullet-POV shot. The director tries to imbue this thriller about Russian mobsters with lots of moody atmosphere, but the world just isn't ready for an angst-y Van Damme. (He actually cries a glycerin tear.) The only redeeming feature is Alexander Gruszynski's beautiful cinematography. The colors are all muted except for the gaudy yellows and oranges; when the obligatory explosions come, they pop out of the screen at you.

In Double Team, Van Damme shares the screen with infamous basketball star Rodman (as his sidekick, of course), and noted has-been Rourke (as the villain). The stilted antics of this fromage à trois would be toxic if they weren't tempered by the schizoid genius of Tsui Hark. The director's propulsive pacing and frantic shifts in style and tone can make you forget that you're watching a bad movie for 10 minutes at a stretch. Double Team is very close in spirit to delirious Hong Kong comedies like I Love You Maria, particularly in the way that it shamelessly cops licks from dozens of other actioners, up to and including Face/Off. Highlights include a nighttime raid on an amusement park, Rodman and Van Damme parachuting to earth inside of a giant basketball, and a terrific kung fu fight with Xiong Xin Xin (aka "Clubfoot") slashing at V.D. with a knife clutched firmly between his toes. The final action sequence is capped off with the most glaring example of product placement in movie history. (A Coca-Cola vending machine saves our heroes' lives.)

In the end, the ludicrous, dissociated Double Team is the perfect vehicle for Van Damme's uniqueness. It's also more entertaining than the long-anticipated Hark product Once Upon a Time in China and America. But it is definitely not good enough to deserve a sequel, which is currently in production. Next year Hark and Van Damme will return for Knock Off, the story of "a fashion designer [!] who must join forces with a C.I.A. agent to combat terrorism," co-starring Lela Rochon and TV's own Rob Schneider. Ahhh, the smell of it.

ó Chris Baker

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