Bloodsport, Directed by Newt Arnold and Written by Sheldon Lettich, Christopher Cosby and Mel Friedman, follows the true story of Frank Dux (Van Damme) an American soldier who abandons his military service and leaves the United States Army to contend in a Martial Arts tournament in Hong Kong. Forest Whitaker has a supporting role named Rawlins, a criminal investigation officer assigned to track Frank down in Hong Kong and prevent him from competing in mortal combat. Along with a few other classics, Bloodsport is the epitome of martial arts films not just in Van Damme’s filmography but of the entire genre. This character for Van Damme represented the quintessential tough guy – powerfully built, taciturn and contained. The combat scenes in Bloodsport inspired an entire generation of mixed martial arts fighters and fans alike, who were in their adolescent years during the late ‘80s, especially with its most memorable scene where one of Frank’s opponents cheats and he’s forced to fight blind. In the sense of its mood and aura, this film separates itself from the rest of the pack. Almost every young boy who watched this film in their youth remembers when and where they were. Bloodsport defines an era and just the mere thought of this film overcomes its fans with acute nostalgia for that time in the ‘80s
Mark DiSalle, one of the producers from Bloodsport, collaborated with David Worth in directing Kickboxer, a story about Kurt Sloan (Van Damme) on a quest to avenge his brother after he was intentionally paralyzed in a brutal no-holds-barred Muay Thai match in Thailand. Kickboxer is essential because of its remarkable training montage sequences where Kurt trains with master Xian (Dennis Chan), who takes him to ancient temples in Thailand dodging fire sticks at dusk, kicking down banana trees with his bare shins at dawn, performing Muay Thai Kata in under water ponds, all the while living with Xian in his village, in preparation for an underground Muay Thai battle with the notorious Tong Po (Michel Qissi) the dishonorable fighter who paralyzed Kurt’s brother Eric Sloan, portrayed by Dennis Alexio, the real-life American kickboxing champion who plays a derivative of himself. What stands out about this film is its title versus the martial art being performed on-screen. They practice and train Muay Thai, which literally translates to English as Thai Combat. It’s a discipline known as the art of eight limbs; shins, knees, elbows and fists. American Kickboxing is a four-limb striking system; no knees and no elbows. Kurt Sloan is an American Kickboxer who must evolve his techniques into Muay Thai in order to avenge his brother’s honor. This film spawned a franchise of four sequels, starring Sasha Mitchell (Step by Step) as David Sloan – Kurt and Eric’s youngest brother. The saga of vengeance continues most notably with Albert Pyun’s Kickboxer 2: The Road Back and Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor. As good as its sequels were, none can hold a candle to Kickboxer.
Death Warrant was directed by Deran Serafian (Terminal Velocity) and written by David S. Goyer (Batman Begins) following a story about a recognized police officer named Louis Burke, who gains access to a vicious and crooked prison to investigate the sudden deaths that have been occurring, only to find that it’s connected to his own history of putting these criminals behind bars. Though this film has a great deal of fight scenes, Van Damme steered away from full-blown martial arts and entered the genres of Mystery and Suspense. Death Warrant is raw and intense with some of its sequences crossing the borderline of Horror. This film separates itself from the rest because of its well-thought out screenplay by David S. Goyer with painstaking scenes written meticulously alongside eye-popping action and spine-chilling suspense through a haunting villain called ‘The Sandman’ (Patrick Kilpatrick). After several years of investigation, Burke had captured The Sandman and sent him to prison, only to find that he’s being transferred to the penitentiary where Burke has infiltrated. Burke uses his fighting skills to continue his investigation in discovering the verities behind the horrible deaths.
In Bloodsport Van Damme used Kumite (one of three main techniques of Karate along with Kata and Kihon) and in Kickboxer he trained the art of eight limbs with Muay Thai and here, with Lionheart he delves deep into the underbelly of street fighting. This time he portrays a character closer to his own ethnicity, as a former French soldier named Lyon Gaultier who competes in dangerous underground fights to make money for his niece and widowed sister-in-law. Remarkable fight sequences in a car garage lit by headlights from vehicles, a low-water level swimming pool and underground arenas with attendants watching from above or around as they place bets on their favorite. Lyon engages in these clandestine fights for financial gain after hearing from the terrible news that his brother has been murdered in Los Angeles, leaving behind a family without support. Lyon’s sister-in-law, Helene (Lisa Pelikan) blames him for being absent in his brother’s life. Lyon meets Joshua (Harrison Page), an ex-prize fighter who introduces Lyon to Cynthia (Deborah Raymond), a promoter of underground prize fights for wealthy gamblers who place sizeable wagers. Lyon requests for the cash he earns to be delivered to Helene by Joshua, underneath the guise of a pseudo-insurance policy his brother would have left behind. The nobility and humbleness of this character is ever-present with his actions; he doesn’t seek credibility for himself and merely wishes to support his niece, Nicole, who has grown to love him. Lyon wants out of the fighting gig, but Cynthia has other motives by double-crossing him and recruiting a dangerous kill-or-be-killed fighter named Attila to destroy Lyon. But, Lyon is a French Legionnaire with honor, who fought his way out of North Africa to attend to his family in California, and he won’t be the victim of anyone’s underhanded plans.
Double Impact would mark the third time Van Damme would work with Director Sheldon Lettich, who directed Lionheart, wrote Bloodsport and would go on to work with Van Damme on several other projects. Double Impact continues the theme of brotherhood except this time Van Damme is avenging his parents killing, teaming up with his long-lost, identical twin brother to track down the organized crime figures responsible. This concept was an outrageous feat in 1991 and it was pulled-off with such impressive dedication by the filmmakers and none other than Van Damme for portraying two easily distinguishable characters while maintaining identicality throughout the film. Van Damme portrays both Chad and Alex, twin brothers who are separated at birth from the night of their parent’s grisly murders only to reunite decades later in a plot of vengeance. Throughout the decades of being apart, Chad was raised in France and later moves to Los Angeles, where he’s a pretty boy gym instructor for ladies, but maintains his fierceness and toughness when it comes to combat. When he’s shown a picture of his brother Alex, a manlier version of himself, living as a crook in Hong Kong, Chad decides to track down his brother and convince him to find the men and women responsible for killing their parents. The no-holds-barred action sequences in Hong Kong are directed with precision and Alex becomes the spark plug of the duo. Van Damme was a genius in figuring out how to subtly represent the differences between these two characters as Alex clearly has more mojo and testosterone than Chad, and together, they’re an unstoppable rebel force but only if Alex can get rid of the major suspicions he has of his long-lost brother, especially with his lady Danielle (Alonna Shaw). Jean-Claude Van Damme has made a wide variety of iconic action films, but these are the essential five gems of his filmography and between the five, if one had to choose their favorite, it might be considered cheating if they chose Double Impact because they’re getting two Van Damme’s for the price of one. Even though Double Impact might be considered Van Damme’s masterpiece, I personally give the edge to Kickboxer. Nevertheless, it’s all subjective.