Jean-Claude Van Damme's long and painful road to a second comeback

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Jan 3, 2018

Jean-Claude Van Damme made the jump to streaming television last month with the release of Jean Claude Van Johnson, a new six-episode series on Amazon. In this meta action-comedy with a splash of science fiction in the form of time-traveling doppelgangers (homages to Timecop and Double Team), the "Muscles From Brussels" plays a version of himself coming out of retirement to star in an action movie version of Huckleberry Finn — a cover for his actual profession: undercover operative.

The series, executive-produced by Ridley Scott, will parody most if not all of Van Damme's career. Van Johnson is Van Damme's first major starring role since 2008's JCVD, a meta indie drama in which he also played a version of himself. Many viewed his performance in that film as a comeback, with Van Damme himself saying it started his "second cycle of fame" after almost a decade in straight-to-DVD purgatory.

Now nine years after JCVD, Van Damme, at 57, is attempting – with a series that is more Jackie Chan than Arnold Schwarzenegger – a second comeback. So it's worth looking back at what led to Van Damme's first comeback, what he did with his second chance, and how those choices led him, the master of the roundhouse kick and the leg split, to take a role that pokes fun at his 30-plus-year career.

Moving to the Los Angeles from his native Belgium in 1981 with nothing but dreams of stardom and an impressive physique, Van Damme's first years in Hollywood were something out of a very clichéd movie. Working odd jobs during the day and sleeping in his car at night, Van Damme would have to wait five years before getting his first role, as a Russian heavy who's one part mob enforcer, one part wrestling heel in the mostly forgettable No Retreat, No Surrender. While Van Damme was only in the film for 25 minutes, his charisma and skill are unavoidable; however, the movie went nowhere, so stardom still eluded him.

A year later, he almost became one of the most iconic movie monsters of the past 30 years when he was cast as the Predator, which would have put him against Arnold Schwarzenegger, the biggest action star of the era; however, he was fired for reasons no one can really agree on today.

By 1988, Van Damme was still struggling but still believed he could make it big. His perseverance would pay off that year when by chance he saw Cannon Films executive Menahem Golan coming out of a restaurant one evening. Van Damme got his attention by getting in front of him and performing a kick that went over Golan's head. A meeting was set up, with Van Damme showing Golan everything in his arsenal and then begging Golan to make him a star. Golan then handed Van Damme the script for Bloodsport (1988), the film that helped Van Damme become famous.

From 1988 till 1999, Van Damme starred in numerous action movies, films that never won over critics but made money on a budget. His career peaked in 1994 with Timecop, which ended up grossing $101 million worldwide. Universal Pictures was so satisfied with the film's performance that they offered Van Damme a three-picture, $36 million dollar contract, which Van Damme wouldn't sign unless he got $20 million per feature. The studio refused simply by hanging up on him; the star would later tell The Guardian that he was just "playing the system." It was the last time Van Damme would ever get such an offer, because shortly after the release of Timecop, his career started to go under.

By the late '90s, because of bad scripts and bad life choices (most of them involving drugs), Van Damme was flaming out. His last major wide-release film, 1999's Universal Soldier: The Return (the sequel to his 1991 cult hit), only made $10 million on a $45 million budget; it was the latest in a series of major flops, a clear sign that audiences were just about done with Van Damme.

He wasn't alone; Chuck Norris fell off a decade prior; Steven Seagal was also headed to the straight-to-DVD bin, and even Schwarzenegger and Stallone were having difficulty staying relevant. Times were changing as the comic book movie takeover of Hollywood was approaching, making stars like Van Damme relics of a previous era.

You wouldn't know it, unless you happen to gander at the DVD rack at your local gas station, but even if audiences were done with Van Damme, he never stopped working. During the early years of the 2000s, Van Damme starred in nothing but straight-to-DVD action flicks. It was during that time that director Mabrouk El Mechri got his hands on the script for what would end up becoming JCVD.

El Mechri, a longtime admirer of Van Damme, wanted to work with him but wasn't happy with the script, telling The New York Times that "it was obviously written by people who didn't know Jean-Claude at a fan level." He rewrote the script to make it more grounded, adding elements of Van Damme's personal history. When the director and star got together, Van Damme was all in, happy that El Mechri "wanted to do something different with me."

JCVD couldn't be any more different from the usual Van Damme feature. Besides a long-take action scene that starts the film, we never see Van Damme as the macho, high-kicking badass he's always portrayed as. Instead, we see him stressed, hurt, and even scared; on top of that, his personal and financial problems are broadcasted around the world when he's believed to be robbing a post office in his hometown, when in fact he's just a hostage.

The film's best scene is Van Damme doing what he did little of during his prime: talking. He floats above the events happening in the film, reaching the stage lights above the set and speaking directly to the camera for seven minutes. In this fourth-wall-breaking monologue, he talks about his career, the mistakes he's made in his personal life, and his drug abuse. Van Damme – still in incredible physical condition – tears up; his voice is shaky; what we see is a man far removed from the one we once saw knock out a snake in one punch.

That scene, which Van Damme improvised, took a great toll on him mentally. "It was like I opened the fruit, peeled the skin, I cut the pulp, I got the pit and cut that and showed that to the audience." Almost 10 years later, it's still the best scene of his career.

The movie did very well with critics: It has an 84 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the highest rating ever for a Van Damme film, and Richard Corliss of Time Magazine placed Van Damme's performance right under Heath Ledger's Joker as the best performance of 2008. It was official: Jean-Claude Van Damme was back.

Four years after JCVD, Van Damme would find himself in a major Hollywood movie, the first in over a decade. In The Expendables 2, Van Damme plays arms dealer Jean Vilain. In his very first scene, he roundhouse-kicks a knife from one of his cronies' palms to Liam Hemsworth's chest, a moment so awesome and ludicrous, the only person who could have pulled it off is Van Damme.

And it was Van Damme – who turned down a role in the first Expendables – who redesigned the showdown between himself and Stallone, making it a hand-to-hand brawl rather than a shootout. It was a case of life coming full circle as when Van Damme first got to Hollywood: he basically stalked Stallone, visiting his house numerous times hoping for an audience with the star. Now there he was, getting killed by his idol on film.

However, since 2012, Van Damme has not been in a major live-action film. He has starred in a handful of limited-release films and has even directed a movie, 2014's Full Love. The most notable thing he has done between Expendables 2 and Van Johnson is starring in a 2013 Volvo commercial in which he's performing his iconic split between two trucks. He also gained notice for appearing on Conan O'Brien's show, where he re-enacted the dance sequence from the first Kickboxer film. Both clips went viral, and both feature Van Damme making light of certain aspects of his career, kind of a precursor to what he's doing in Van Johnson.

Almost a decade after making his first comeback with an indie drama, Van Damme is trying to give his career new life with a TV comedy. As was the case with JCVD, Van Damme is working with a longtime fan, showrunner Dave Callahan, who told The Times that Van Damme "was my favorite actor growing up." What's different this time around is that the intended audience won't be theatergoers, but binge watchers, a much larger but unreliable audience. Since Amazon doesn't release streaming numbers, there's no telling if the series will have an audience, even though it was voted in as part of their Pilots Program.

Regardless, Van Damme will continue working. For over 30 years, Van Damme has done everything he could to hold on to this dream of stardom. Times and the tastes of audiences may change, but Van Damme keeps on kicking; it's all he knows how to do.