Bloodsport, Jean-Claude Van Damme was in high demand. Tom Pollack, then head of Universal studios, called JCVD wanting to work with him. Unfortunately, the young Muscles From Brussels had signed multiple contracts with smaller independent studios, using snippets from the unreleased Bloodsport as his calling card. Now that he was hot, everybody came looking; starting with the man behind the melee, Cannon Film's Menahem Golan. Golan had JC locked into a low paying contract that paid him $25,000 for Bloodsport, then $50,000 and $75,000 for two more pictures that ended up being 1989's Cyborg and 1990's Death Warrant. Each of these low budget actioners would gross 10 times their production costs, thus making Van Damme a safe investment.
By the time Van Damme got out of his low paying contracts, it was time for a step up. Along with Bloodsport co-writer and now trusted friend and director Sheldon Lettich, the two developed Double Impact, the tale of reunited twins who team up to exact revenge on the mobsters who killed their parents. Produced in name only by Academy Award winner Michael Douglas (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and long time associate Moshe Diamont, Double Impact would be a bigger and classier Van Damme affair that showed a different side of the karate guy. The budget? Roughly $15 million. A far cry from the $1-3 million that Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Cyborg, Death Warrant and Lionheart each cost. Released by Columbia Pictures in August of 1991, Double Impact would become Van Damme's highest grosser yet, raking in $30 million at the U.S. box office. His fee? $600,000.
Mario Kassar of Carolco had previously paid Sylvester Stallone $16 million for 1988's Rambo III and just handed over a slightly used private airplane worth $14 million to Arnold Schwarzenegger for 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Sly and Arnie were already the undisputed kings of action cinema which meant challengers to the crown were inevitable. Kassar sent the script for Crystal Knights, an action romp about reanimated dead soldiers that had stalled out under Andrew Davis (Steven Seagal's Under Siege) to Van Damme with an offer worth a cool $1 million. Kassar also recruited Hollywood and real life tough guy Dolph Lundgren to the play the villain. Lundgren had made a splash opposite Stallone in 1985's mega hit Rocky IV but struggled after with enjoyable duds like 1987's Masters of the Universe, 1988's Red Scorpion, 1989's I Come In Peace and 1991's Showdown In Little Tokyo.
Fresh from Germany director Roland Emmerich was hired to take the reigns as he had just walked away from helming Stallone in the still yet to be made Isobar. Kassar only gave Emmerich one caveat, make the "mini-Terminator" for $20 million. Working with friend and co-writer Dean Devlin, the two rewrote the script, renamed it Universal Soldier and headed to Nevada and Arizona to shoot the film. For Van Damme, it was a chance at the big time. A studio picture with a talented director, ample resources and known co-stars could elevate him beyond the low budget, video market karate pictures he was known for.
Released in July of 1992, Universal Soldier would mark Van Damme's first $10 million opening on it's way to a $36 million total and continuing his filmography trend of performing better than his last picture. Overseas the flick excelled and Unisol also became VD's first $100 million grosser. In an essence, it really was a "mini-Terminator" as Arnie and James Cameron had roughly 5 times the money to spend on T2 and earned roughly 5 times as much. Van Damme's next picture netted him over $3 million on his way to a career high (and start of decline) of $7 million for 1994's Street Fighter. But that, is another story...
You're discharged, sarge!