Friday, May 24, 2013

The Way We Weren't: Jean-Claude Van Damme as Daredevil

On a hot summer day in 1994, Jean-Claude Van Damme hopped on a private jet in Burbank, CA and flew to San Diego for Comic-Con.  There, the self proclaimed fan of comic book heroes Spider-Man and Tintin greeted 2,000 waiting fans in an auditorium, answering questions and taking pictures of the crowd.  Afterwards, Van Damme met the press in a small conference to promote his two upcoming pictures, Timecop (newly announced to be rebooted) and Street Fighter (since rebooted).  Timecop would become one of Van Damme's biggest critical successes as well as his most lucrative.

Post presser, the Muscles From Brussels took to the convention floor where he created a small frenzy as fans recognized the cinematic hero of such 80's and 90's hits Bloodsport, Universal Soldier and Hard Target.  Van Damme was escorted to the Marvel Comics booth to meet the legend himself, Stan Lee, who along with artists like John Romita, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby created Daredevil, Spider-Man, The Hulk and The Fantastic Four among hundreds of others.

After an amiable introduction, Van Damme hoped to catch Stan Lee later to discuss a project he had in mind, a big screen adaptation of The Man Without Fear, Daredevil.  The Fred Astaire of Karate hoped to secure rights to the character with no upfront and points on the back end instead.  A friend doubted Lee would take no upfront but Van Damme confidently replied that someone else could pay, sit on it and not have it made while he could get it into production, turn it into a sensation and Lee would be happy to have the points.

As cinema has shown us, it took nearly a decade to get Daredevil on screen and the results, while entertaining, won't exactly go down in the history books as a success. In the 2003 version, Ben Affleck played the blind lawyer by day, masked and costumed avenger by night.  He's joined by a familiar supporting cast and rogues gallery from the comics; crime boss Kingpin, hyper accurate and insane assassin Bullseye, ninja trained love interest Electra and partner in the courtroom Foggy Nelson.  These roles are gamely filled by the likes of Michael Clarke Duncan, Colin Farrell, Jennifer Garner and Jon Favreau.  It's a visual translation of the comics; dark, brooding and violent yet lacks any real depth.

What would Van Damme's version entail?  Who knows.  But I've always been intrigued by the notion of a comic book hero being played by an actor with the physical prowess and action credentials of 80's and 90's stars.  Guys like Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren seemed tailor made to play superheroes because they were basically real life versions of them.  Physical, driven, multi-talented and intelligent types who took care of the job.

A mid-1990's Daredevil would have benefited greatly from the action directors working at the time.  Guys like James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven, Renny Harlin, Walter Hill, Andrew Davis, Roland Emmerich, John McTiernan and Jan De Bont all showed us intense, exciting, character driven action that didn't require wires or unbelievable CGI.

Physically, Wham Bam, Thank You Van Damme playing Daredevil would be no problem.  His acrobatic grace and powerful kicks would have worked beautifully for the martial arts centric Horned Hero.  But what about as secret identity Matt Murdock?  The blind, skirt chasing defense lawyer?  As we saw in Lionheart and Universal Soldier, Van Damme is fully capable of playing vulnerable and sensitive without appearing macho or threatening.  As for the skirt chaser aspect of Murdock, well, JCVD has never lacked charm for the ladies on screen so it wouldn't have been an issue.

Jean-Claude Van Damme playing Daredevil would have been a treat as straight forward superhero movies weren't exactly the norm in the 90's.  It might not have been the blockbuster of Batman or had the virtuoso touch of Dick Tracy but it could have definitely been a charged and entertaining time at the movies.

Here's Joe Carnahan's last minute effort to direct Daredevil for FOX before the rights lapsed:

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