Cyborg (1989); Bloodsport (1988)
Starting Friday night, I would kick things off with Cyborg, the Albert Pyun classic. The only film on this list that I've actually reviewed, it was the DTV film that made the big time, and Van Damme was the DTV actor that made it big too. Though chronologically it comes after Bloodsport, I think the latter was a much more fun movie, so I figured it would leave a better taste in the viewer's mouth than Cyborg would.
Bloodsport is the film that made Van Damme who he is. The split punch, the bump on his forehead, the great accent. It also had Forest Whitaker, who won an Oscar for his wprk in Ghost Dog back in 1999. Whitaker plays an FBI agent, and his foot chase with Van Damme is one of the best of all time-- if you like chase scenes that play out like Mentos commercials. The amazing end fight with Bolo Yeung, where Yeung tries to cheat with a crushed Alka Seltzer tab he smuggled in in his pants, and Van Damme counters by punching him in the nuts, is the perfect way to leave viewers psyched for more the next day. Also of note, both are Golan-Globus films.
Kickboxer (1989); Lionheart (1990)
Saturday afternoon picks up where we left off with Bloodsport the night before, starting with Kickboxer. Noted for baddie Tong Po (played by Michel Qissi), and Van Damme's thong tank top he wears in his drunken dance scene. Okay, it's known for the dance scene as well. Like Bloodsport, Kickboxer spawned DTV sequels that didn't have Van Damme in them.
Along with Kickboxer, Lionheart helped to cement Van Damme's place as a top action star in the US. You could say that Van Damme had made it. As opposed to Friday's films, putting these two in chronological order is a good thing, because it's necessary for the viewer to see the creation of what we know of as Jean-Claude Van Damme: the splits, the buttcheeks, the need for women to want to do him. Lionheart is essentially eye candy for straight women and gay men with a plot meant for us hard core action fans. As much as this image cultivated in these two films would make Van Damme huge, they would also lead to his downfall in popular culture.
Death Warrant (1990); Double Impact (1991)
Saturday night's films are all about the Van Damme we think of when we hear the name. These are quintessential Van Damme movies. In Death Warrant, Van Damme is sent to a prison to investigate some murders and what not. Robert Guillaume turns in his best performance since Benson, and the bad guy, known affectionately as The Sandman, teaches kids a valuable lesson in fire safety, when he stops, drops, and rolls after being thrown into a fire by Van Damme.
If the previous five films had you feeling like maybe Van Damme wasn't on screen enough, here comes Double Impact, where our hero plays two roles. Ladies, if you like the clean cut preppy type, he can do that; and if you like the bad boy, he can do that too. It's important to see that in six films we've only covered three years. You can almost see the wave cresting already.
Universal Soldier (1992); Hard Target (1993)
If anyone is back on Sunday, they'll be treated to two of Van Damme's biggest films, the point where that wave was at it's peak, before it crested and broke, sending Van Damme back, kicking and screaming, to the DTV world from which he came. Universal Soldier is his one collaboration with Dolph Lundgren, and the end fight scene between the two didn't disappoint. Throughout the time Van Damme was making it huge, Dolph was having less success post Rocky IV, with Masters of the Universe a disaster, The Punisher left unreleased in limbo, and Showdown in Little Tokyo doing almost nothing in the theater. Though Dolph had the poorer Hollywood career, his DTV career has far surpassed Van Damme's so far, and he's handled his fate much better. It's evident here, where Dolph seems to be having fun as the bad guy, while Van Damme is very serious about making sure he "acts well".
We end the film fest with Hard Target, John Woo's debut in the US. Fresh off the amazing Hard Boiled, Woo was a hot commodity, so for his first film to be a Van Damme one was confirmation of just how huge Van Damme had become. How could he know in two short years and three films later, he would make his most money for a picture in Sudden Death, and that would be it. Three years after that he was making Knock Off, grabbing onto anything sturdy as the DTV vortex dragged him back in. Also of note: Wilford Brimley co-stars.
If you wanted to go any further, you could add Timecop, Street Fighter, or Sudden Death, to emphasize the break in the wave, just like you could add Knock Off, Double Team, and especially Universal Soldier: The Return, to highlight his struggle to keep the wave from receding, but I think the 8 I picked, where the wave builds and hits its peak, is enough. You're looking at only 5 years, but it feels like so much more.
For more info: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000241/
(By the way, I was just notified that Forest Whitaker won his Oscar for Last King of Scotland. My bad.)