Jean-Claude Van Damme – Black Belt Blitz

Jean-Claude Van Damme

His is one of those incredible success stories that conjures intense images of the underdog overcoming impossible odds and improbable circumstances to live out his dream. Consider the obstacles. Jean Claude Van Damme came to Hollywood from Belgium in 1981 hoping to become a movie star. He barely spoke a word of English. He knew nobody. He brought $2,000 with him, which he lived on for four years. Among other stimulating occupations, he worked as a bouncer and a chauffeur. There were times when he was forced to sleep in his car and scrounge for food. It took him five years to get his big break in Bloodsport. Then, when Bloodsport was completed, the original version was so bad that the picture was shelved for almost two years. It might have never been released had not Van Damme helped recut the film himself and beg producers to release it. Then the miracle happened. Bloodsport, shot in Hong Kong on a meager $1.5 million budget, became a U.S. box-office hit in the spring of 1988. By May of that year, it had grossed some $12 million and, once it runs its international course, is expected to rake in as much as $30 million. Audiences supported this film for only one reason. Its star was sensational. Jean Claude Van Damme, Hollywood’s new martial arts sensation, had broken into the big time.

Lumpini Stadium
In Muay Thai pose for the movie “Kickboxer”

On September 14, Death Warrant, marking Jean Claude Van Damme’s fifth starring role in a feature film, will break in North America. It marks the third collaboration between the action star and producer Mark DiSalle, whose working relationship led to two earlier box office hits, Bloodsport and Kickboxer. Death Warrant co-stars Robert Guillaume (Benson), along with Cynthia Gibb, George Dickerson and Patrick Kilpatrick. Synopsis In Death Warrant, maverick detective Louis Burke (Van Damme) has just made the toughest bust of his career, collaring “The Sandman,” a demented killer (Kilpatrick) Christian Naylor. Burke recovers from near-fatal wounds inflicted by the villain and reports back to work for what he thinks will be light duties. Instead, he has been selected to infiltrate Harrison Penitentiary to investigate a series of unexplained deaths. Burke poses as a convicted armed robber, while beautiful attorney Amanda Backett (Gibb) is assigned to be Burke’s “wife” and liaison with the outside world. Burke forms a network of prison informants and allies, among them the reluctant Hawkins (Guillaume). Soon Burke discovers a death squad who kills inmates for their healthy vital organs, which are then smuggled to South America and sold to waiting transplant patients. Everything is proceeding rather smoothly until the vengeance-crazed Christian Naylor is transferred to Harrison Penitentiary and exposes Burke to his fellow inmates as a cop. A full-blown cell riot erupts and Burke is plunged into a nightmarish battle in the bowels of the prison as he fights to survive the awesome onslaught of the all-but-indestructible “Sandman.” Prisons, naturally, are perfect settings for conflicts and confrontations in films. They house dangerous criminals in confining spaces with layer upon layer of steel bars, locked doors, and guards, all to assure that the dangerous are kept from escaping. Those same precautions, for Van Damme’s role, would also keep an innocent man inside the prison. He would be forced, in a con-fined and confming space, to combat vicious men, and without the benefit of conventional weapons to defend himself. The film’s climactic fight scene pits Van Damme against the invincible “Sandman” in the prison’s dark subterranean boiler room, where worse horrors than mortal combat had been taking place. A Different Kind of Role Death Warrant,” says Jean Claude, “is a different type of movie; it’s a combination of action and horror and it grows scarier the further you get into the film. There’s much more acting in this film than in Bloodsport and Kickboxer. We have a relationship between me and Robert Guillaume, between me and my cellmate, and also between me and a female attorney — there’s a small love story with a nice kissing scene. It’s a better role for me on the acting side and will attract a different kind of audience.” Will there be enough action for his martial arts fans? “Yes,” Van Damme assures everyone. “The way I would define Death Warrant is, it’s an action film with more drama than my previous films.” Producer DiSalle explains it this way: “We made a conscious effort to find a project that wasn’t strictly a martial arts film for Jean Claude. Yet the prison setting in Death Warrant provided the possibility for enough hand-to-hand combat action to satisfy Van Damme’s fans.”

Little did Bruce Lee know that the co-star he battled to the death in Return of the Dragon would actually live on to create a new martial arts film standard for generations to come. Surely, Bruce would smile at the success of his fair haired friend. He would also come to admire Chuck’s style in his latest release. “It’s the best Chuck Norris movie we’ve ever seen,” said the host of curious black belts who recently saw the sneak preview of Delta Force 2 in Washington D.C. Just released nationally on August 24th. two weeks after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Operation Stranglehold is sure to have the same enthusiastic reception all over the globe. “Chuck Norris’ popularity as a good human being has really transcended his roles,” says PKA president Joe Corley, “and the hero’s welcome he gets everywhere he goes is an indicator of how immensely popular he is; he’s a ‘what you see is what you get everyman star,’ This is his best effort.” It is probably the most physically demanding of Norris’ career. On location, the mountain stood nearly 2,000 feet high. Clinging to its side, about halfway up, a lone climber struggles to ascend the cliff, grasping for a hold. He gets a footing and pauses to look down. All the way down. The climber is Chuck Norris. “Believe me, 99.9 percent of the actors in the world wouldn’t think of attempting what Chuck is doing,” said Kinnie Gibson, a stunt double on the set of Delta Force 2, directed by Chuck’s brother, Aaron Norris. Costars include Billy Drago, John P. Ryan and Richard Jaeckel. Returning in his role as Colonel Scott McCoy, Norris leads the Delta Force on a rescue of American drug enforcement agents held captive in the armed fortress of a diabolic drug kingpin. The mountain climbing sequence is just one of several grueling and spectacular action scenes in the picture. With Chuck’s film career now entering its second decade, he remains in superb physical condition allowing him to set the pace for union stunt men. “Chuck is a stuntman’s actor,” remarked Jeff Habberstead, a stunt man who has worked with Chuck on three films. “He’s the best I’ve ever worked with.” With nearly half a billion dollars at the box office so far Norris is sure to be the role model for action films well into the 21st century.

Jean Claude Van Damme has no less than four future film projects on his agenda, two of which have already been shot and are awaiting distribution dates. Here he describes them in his own words. Lionheart (a.k.a. AWOL) “I finished a movie which they will call Lionheart in Europe, where it is being released first. I’ll be in Paris and touring Europe from July 27 to August 8 to promote its opening. “Lionheart is about a guy who deserts the Foreign Legion in Europe to come to America illegally to find his brother, whose life is in danger. He gets here too late and his brother is killed — he was burned to death by members of a gang. They expect revenge, but first I have to financially take care of my brother’s wife and his kid. To do this I have to make money very fast because Foreign Legion investigators are right behind me and intend to take me back. The movie is sort of a combination of Charles Bronson’s Hard Times and Midnight Cowboy, the John Voigt and Dustin Hoffman film. “Lionheart is my last low-budget movie, but it was very well made. Universal Studios, who bought the U.S. distribution rights, is going to invest $10-12 million in publicity and advertising. Universal did a test screening of Lionheart and got an 84% positive response, and for that I’m very proud. That was the highest score for summer 1990 of all the Universal movies. “Lionheart is going to be released in February 1991.” (Editor’s note: Lionheart has gone through multiple name changes. And now, according to an August 10 announcement by Universal, it will be called Lionheart in the U.S., but an exact release date was not given.) Double Impact “This is another different type of movie for me with a lot of action, drama, acting and lots of love and passion. I am playing twins. One is like a Steven Seagal-type of guy, very macho-looking, who doesn’t talk much and kicks tail. The other guy’s like a Chevy Chase character; he knows karate and is from Hollywood — he talks and acts, in fact, like a flashy Hollywood agent. He does all his karate moves perfectly, but has never fought on the street. “Each guy looks and dresses different and they’re both played by me. At first they’re both in love with the same woman and they’re going to fight for her. They were separated at birth and only realize later in the movie that they are brothers. Twenty-five years ago, their parents were killed by the Asian mafia so they decide to seek revenge. There’s a surprise in the climax. “Michael Douglas [Black Rain; War of the Roses], is going to be executive producer for Double Impact. I will produce, along with Ashok Amritraj for Columbia Pictures. Chris Keene (Young Guns) will direct. We’ll shoot the movie in Los Angeles and Asia with a huge budget, $15 to $20 million.” Universal Soldier “After filming Double Impact, I’ll be doing a movie with Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV; Masters of the Universe) called Universal Soldier. Dolph will play the bad guy and I’ll play the good guy and it’s action from A to Z. So of course there will be lots of great fights between him and me. We are supposed to begin shooting in February 1991.” Night of the Leopard “After that I’m going to do Night of the Leopard with John Glen directing — the guy who’s done many of the James Bond films. I can’t say too much about it now because it’s too early.”

martial arts magazine
This article was published in November 1990, Fighter International