Monday, December 1, 2014

Van Dammage: C'est la Steve McQueen

"He told me you should spend less time training in the gym and more time training your mouth...He believes I have a shot at being not just an action star but a French Steve McQueen!"

     Jean-Claude Van Damme's career advice from director Peter Hyams

After bursting onto the scene with 1988's low budget martial arts cult classic Bloodsport, Jean-Claude Van Damme's starred in a string of cheap, money making beat'em ups like Cyborg, Kickboxer and Death Warrant.  After being paid $25,000 for Bloodsport, 4 years and 6 movies later, he'd land a cool $1 million for 1992's explosive sci-fi tinged thriller Universal Soldier, nearly the budget of of his breakout film.  The sub-$20 million dollar Carolco flick co-starring fellow muscular and kickboxing European Dolph Lundgren was hoped to be Van Damme's breakthrough into the mainstream.  By the early 90's Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were firmly ensconced as Hollywood's kings of the action film; with the mysterious Aikido master and supposedly former C.I.A. operative Steven Seagal coming up fast behind them after impressing Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz and being backed by Warner Brothers from the get go in handsome hits like Above the Law and Marked for Death.  1992's "Die Hard on a battleship" Under Siege would gross a huge $83 million.  Universal Soldier would open up # 2 with Van Damme's first $10 million dollar weekend on it's way to a respectable $36 million in the states and over $100 million worldwide. 

Long wanting to leave his pure kickboxing image behind, Van Damme followed Unisol with romantic action western Nowhere to Run showcasing a softer, more sensitive side.  Instead of flashy kicks and splits, we got rough and tumble fisticuffs, a motorcycle chase and JCVD hanging out with a widow and her two kids.   Nowhere To Run's $22 million dollar gross would reverse Van Damme's 5 movie upswing.  The Bulging Belgian would make up for Nowhere's lack of expected excitement with Hard Target, an $18 million dollar hardcore action movie from Universal Studios that marked the stateside debut of legendary Hong Kong maestro John Woo.  Armed with a silver shotgun, duel pistols and a horse while rocking a greasy mullet, Hard Target mustered up another $10 million opening en route to $32 million total.  Universal became confident that with a decent budget and promotional push, Van Damme could break the $50 million dollar mark and into the upper echelon of cinematic tough guys.

Timecop, a script by Mark Verheidan and Mike Richardson based on their Dark Horse Comic, became the vehicle meant to push Van Damme into the A-List.  Largo Entertainment funded while Universal handled distribution.  Having long worked with novice directors, JCVD sought out the experienced hand of Peter Hyams, responsible for well received flicks like 2010, Outland and Running Scared but after a few misfires needed a hit.  At first reluctant to meet with Wham Bam Van Damme, knowing him only as a "karate guy", Hyams was won over by the star's personality, charm, sense of humor and vulnerability.  Armed with a $28 million dollar budget, $3.5 going to the star, the Timecop production headed to Vancouver with known and talented co-stars like Mia Sara, Ron Silver and Bruce McGill in tow.  The film opens in a 1994 where time travel is possible.  Cut to 2004 and former Washington D.C. street cop Max Walker (Van Damme) is now a Time Enforcement Commission officer who travels to the past to bring back illegal time jumpers.  After his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) is mysteriously killed in 1994, grizzled, hardened and slightly mulleted 2004 Max faces off with diabolical Presidential candidate Aaron McComb (Ron Silver) who is traveling back in time to raise $50 million bucks for his election campaign.

Like Arnold, the man Van Damme was most compared to early in his career, sci-fi tinged action seemed to work for our guy.  Cyborg, Universal Soldier and Timecop were all notable entries in his career while guys like Stallone hit and missed (Demolition Man was great, Judge Dredd was enjoyable but an expensive dud) and Seagal never even tried.  Timecop would be Van Damme's classiest and most ambitious film to date as we go from the Civil War to 1994 to 1929 and end up in 2004 without missing a beat.  Striving to be accepted by the mainstream as an intelligent action movie, TC kept trademarks like high kicks, splits and a butt shot while mixing in big sets, special FX, explosions and onscreen scuffles involving future guns, knives, wrenches and axes.  Never the hyper physical specimen or oddity Arnold was deemed, Van Damme is a slim yet pumped up 180 pounds in the picture having kept in shape visiting a crowded, downtown Fitness World on a daily basis.  Van Damme's unmistakable French-Belgian accent is commented on but not explained, a possible first as he was born in Los Angeles but raised in Belgium in Kickboxer, from French Canada in Death Warrant, a New Orleans native in Unisol and Hard Target, etc.  With a dead wife as motivation, Van Damme's acting hits new heights along with the budget and his mix of determined duty mixed with sensitive sorrow was a surprise to Hyams.  Some of the science and time travel elements don't quite add up; a painful and harrowing rocket pod ride racing towards a brick wall sends you to the past yet a simple click of a button brings you back to the present.  The end climax kind of slumps as 1994 and 2004 versions of Max battle thugs in and around the house during a rain storm, much of it in the dark as per Hyam's usual under lit D.P. style.

Before the release of the film, Van Damme was confident Timecop would be a hit; believing in the story, dialogue, acting, cast, FX and director.  The once hesitant Hyams described Timecop as a joyous experience and looked forward to working with Jean-Claude again.  Premiering on September 16th, 1994, Timecop would be Van Damme's first # 1 opening, grossing $12 million movie bucks then claiming the top spot in it's 2nd week on the way to a $44 million total and over $100 million worldwide.  Van Damme looked to broaden his image again with the PG-13 rated Street Fighter based on the worldwide video game phenomenon.  While the Christmas of '94 release saw Van Damme collect a career high $7 million dollar salary, the film was destroyed by fans and critics alike and it's box office take was $10 million less than Timecop even without the restricted rating.  Follow up pairing with Hyams, 1995's "Die Hard at the Stanley Cup" action thriller Sudden Death looked once again to put Van Damme into a mainstream affair and while critics were kind, grosses were half of Timecop's.  The Real JC...VD would further take the reigns of his career for his 1996 goodbye to the martial arts genre, The Quest; writing/directing/starring in the 1920's set mini-epic but dwindling grosses saw him going straight to video a few years later. Hyams would hammer out decent if unspectacular thrillers The Relic, End of Days and The Musketeer before crashing with 2005's tumultuous production and big budget flop, A Sound of Thunder.  The duo reteamed for 2013's low budget actioner Enemies Closer with Van Damme playing a violent, over the top, clown haired vegan villain.

Timecop would return as a short lived television series on ABC in 1997 but failed in the ratings resulting in only 9 of the 13 ordered episodes airing.  Van Damme would later call the producers idiots for selling the rights to TV instead of giving him a film franchise.  A direct to video sequel did follow in 2003, The Berlin Decision, starring Jason Scott Lee.  In 2013, it was announced that Timecop would join Kickboxer and Bloodsport as Van Damme less reboots.  The film remains his biggest hit and among his most enjoyable efforts with it's mix of scope, inventive action, story and a surprisingly hot (to 12 year old me) sex scene.

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