Jean-Claude Van Damme | Or Was It Jean-Claude Van Johnson We Saw on the Floor of the Atrium at Paris’ Peninsula Hotel?
Jean-Claude Van Damme is lying on the marble floor of a stunning light-filled atrium at the Peninsula hotel in Paris. He is kicking and punching the air. He seems jubilant. “Another one, like this!” he tells the photographer, striking a pose that recalls the latent power of a lion waiting in ambush for a kill. It’s an incongruous scene for a place that slings 32 Euro bowls of soupe à l’oignon and whose rooms cost more per night than my monthly rent, but then again nothing about Jean-Claude Van Damme (or ‘JCVD,’ for brevity’s sake) has ever been ordinary.
Besides, there’s a good reason for the impromptu gun show: a new, highly anticipated TV show—Jean-Claude Van Johnson—streaming on Amazon and, to pair, a photo-shoot for Flaunt Magazine.
Who, really, is Jean-Claude Van Damme? It’s a question I found myself asking as I researched his career, and it’s not an easy one to answer. He’s a weird mix of open-book and enigmatic prankster. He’s inherently charming, instantly lovable, friendly and funny. He speaks quickly, but when you try to unknot his sentences, which unfold in free-associative and sometimes strangely cryptic riddles, you often find yourself puzzling over what was actually communicated.
He boasts a bouquet of identities, and he seems to relish them all—mix equal parts sex- symbol, actor, martial-artist, and reality television personality, and you’ll have an approximation of the unlikely amalgamation that launched him into the spotlight. He’s a star that seems very much of his time and place: late ‘80s and early ‘90s Hollywood, where dubious acting chops were easily lacquered over with good looks, a winning sense of humor, and a heavy dollop of melodramatic excess.
Van Damme’s specialty was the over-the-top combat epic that dominated box-offices of the era, as seen in films like Bloodsport (1988), Kickboxer (1989), Street Fighter (1994), and Timecop (1994), and which usually feature a virtuous and sexy main character who spends his time kicking ass (and baring a bit of it for the ladies). It’s hard not to feel nostalgic when you look back on these movies.
The earnestness, the straightforward character arcs—they hold a certain charm in today’s era of gritty characterization and mega-budget CGI-enabled effects. Van Damme feels similarly: “Doing things the old fashion way, there’s the tension of real physical impact. No CGI, no cables. It’s real reactions and real objects we worked with, not like with a green screen and cables where they just say “Jump” and you have to pretend. When you can’t see what you’re reacting with it’s not the same. The effort is just not there.”
At 57 he bursts with an energy that I, in my jet-lagged state, can only envy: knocking out shots like a seasoned pro, zipping back to wardrobe for some new threads, suggesting ever-more adventurous angles and poses to the photographer. He still looks like he could kick me through a wall. I’m remembering a younger Van Damme: a leap, a spin, a roundhouse kick delivered like a scorpion’s sting to strike his surprised opponent down in Bloodsport. (Never has researching a subject proved to be such a guilty pleasure.)
Perhaps he maintains all that fight in him because he has never really stopped fighting. It’s been a long road for Van Damme. In a way, his life is plotted a bit like one of his movies—a scrappy kid kicking and punching his way to the top of the heap; the inevitable second-act fall; the redemption and ultimate victory for our hero. Nothing was ever given to Van Damme— he had to take it.
He came from humble beginnings, an overweight and heavily bullied Belgian kid who stood up and decided to show the world what he was made of. He took up kickboxing and fought his way through the ranks, ending his professional career with only one loss. He kept fighting when he moved from Europe to LA with the dream of becoming an action star, speaking broken English and with little money to his name, working menial gigs and hustling through Hollywood before climbing from bit parts to a breakout role in the legendary Bloodsport, and then steadily to global superstardom.
And then came the fall, that darkness that so often comes with the spotlight, as brutal as the beat down his character Frank Dux receives at the hands of Chong Li. After a string of box-office disappointments in the ‘90s he was out of favor with the studios.There were painful,highly public divorces, love strained under the weight of fame. And all the while he did battle with his toughest opponent, first guised as a friend that got him through the hard times before later showing its true colors, and almost putting “The Muscles from Brussels” down for good—cocaine. Our hero was wounded. But if you’ve ever seen a Van Damme joint, you know what’s next. A true fighter never quits. So began the long climb back up.
After enduring a life of such visible ups and downs, maybe the proper response is that which Van Damme has seemingly arrived at: embracing the image the public has cast you in, accepting that you have become more icon then man, and then fusing the two— Jean-Claude Van Damme (person) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (character)—into a sort of meta-commentary on your own life and career.
In 2008’s JCVD, hailed by critics as the best performance of Van Damme’s career and as signaling a reemergence for the actor, Van Damme plays a semi-fictionalized version of himself—a down and out star who retreats to his hometown as his family life and career prospects are falling apart. At one point near the climax of the film, Van Damme breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience in an emotional reflection on his career, his struggles with substance abuse, and his multiple failed marriages. It’s disorienting: Van Damme using a fictionalized Van Damme as a vessel for an ostensibly “true” confession and reflection.
And then, on a much lighter note, there’s that fantastic Volvo commercial. You’ve seen it: Van Damme executes his trademark perfect splits, each foot on the mirror of a different truck as they speed, backwards, down a track, Van Damme suspended between them. It’s Van Damme winking at his legacy while exulting it—a stunt both astonishing and a bit ridiculous, especially with the comically overwrought stoicism with which he completes the feat.
And now we have Jean-Claude Van Johnson, which offers a kaleidoscopic universe of duplicate Van Dammes wrapped up in a Pynchonesque metanarrative. The actor plays both a parodic version of himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme, as well as Jean-Claude Van Johnson, his crime fighting alter ego. And then there’s Filip, who it seems Van Damme in some ways loves the most—a janitor and a die-hard fan of Timecop whose life is complicated when he becomes entangled in is hero’s frenetic adventures.
“I love having the chance to do so many different characters. It’s a great experience—kind of like therapy for me. I’m so busy with my mind. It goes all over the place,” he tells me, and as I follow along I can see it for myself. “So, it was nice to go to this character, and that character, and that character. Still, it’s very tiring when you do that, switching all the time. But because I knew in that shoot that I would be able to go back to Jean-Claude Van Damme, I was not afraid to get out of my comfort zone, to be totally clownish, because I knew I would return to the version of me that people know.”
So, is all this a version of self-protection, muddying the waters? Is a man whose life has been lived on display constructing a hall of mirrors so that the real Van Damme can hide within an army of reflections? Talking to the man himself, I don’t think so. If anything, the layered identities only allow him to reveal more shades of his personality. And he’s clearly enjoying the opportunity to try new things. “It’s like a surprise, to see what’s going to happen. I am enjoying every moment of it, and I am very happy to see it out in the world. We’ve been working on that project for like four years. Four years! A lot, four years. Some people get divorced after two,” he says, laughing. Another wink. Another self-referential loop. Whatever side of Van Damme you get, you’re always glad to have it.
Written by Sid Feddema.
Photographed by Louis Canadas.
Styled by Henry de Castillon.
Groomer: Gino Zamprioli.
Location: The Peninsula Paris Hotel.