Sunday, January 12, 2014

My First Million: Jean-Claude Van Damme & Universal Soldier

Following the success of 1988's 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.

Around the same time, 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. 

The story of two soldiers who kill each other in Vietnam and come back in the present day part of a government program as elite yet blank, zombie-esque killing machines; Universal Soldier stands as one of the great action flick examples of the 90's.  It's big, loud, violent, fast and funny.  Big machines, big guns, big guys, big action, big fights and big explosions, it's all there.  While it may play as a knock off of Robocop and Terminator to some, Emmerich and crew deliver a film with it's own vision, scope and attitude that highlighted Van Damme and Dolph's attributes while putting them in an actual "movie" where they're part of the attraction instead of the only thing on display.  Van Damme plays Luc Deveraux as simple, innocent and childlike while also utilizing his karate prowess to beat up a room full of thugs and slug it out in the rain against Dolph.  Lundgren goes for it as the psycho Sgt. Andrew Scott and plays a wonderfully sinister and dark humored antagonist complete with human ear necklace.  It's an 80's and 90's action fan's dream come true as familiar faces like Simon Rhee (Best of the Best), Tiny Lister (No Holds Barred) and Ralf Moeller (Cyborg, Best of the Best 2) pop up to blow shit up.

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!


  1. The "Crystal Knights" title didn't last long, as soon Dolph and Van Damme were announced in January 1990, it was already called "Universal Soldier". It was more sci-fi then though it was the same basic premise with different characters and story points. There were rewrites of course and various writers attached? And Andrew Davis prepped the movie for about one year, with elaborated visual effects being concepted etc. He also changed the script and it became something else. The whole thing was getting costly and nobody really liked Davis take, so he left in early 1991, when Emmerich (who I believe also got attached to Sly's "Deadly Reckoning") got on board.

    1. Davis seemed to have trouble staying on projects! Got fired from Running Man, they dumped him on Unisol...Hearing Craig Baumgarten describe Davis' version sounded very not like what we ended up getting. Sigh...I miss Carolco!