In a year that has seen would-be action heroes Jeff Speakman and Brian Bosworth make well-orchestrated attempts to muscle their way into the action-adventure movie arena, Columbia Pictures is clearly betting that Jean-Claude Van Damme could be the next Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal--or even Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Double Impact," the $15-million action film in which Van Damme plays dual roles, opened well Aug. 9 and has grossed $15.3 million and the 30-year-old Belgian karate champion and kickboxer is already shooting his next film, "Universal Soldier," a Carolco project and the first film in a rumored eight-picture deal with Columbia Pictures and Carolco.
Although no one at Columbia will confirm the exact details of the Van Damme deal, Michael Nathanson, Columbia's head of production, says the company has a commitment with Van Damme that "the next three or four or five pictures are going to be directly financed and produced by us." Two more will be produced by Carolco, whose pictures are distributed by Tri-Star, which is owned, like Columbia, by Sony Pictures Entertainment. "Double Impact" was a co-production between Columbia and Michael Douglas' Stone Group.
What makes Van Damme look like an heir apparent as the next karate/kickboxer/bodybuilder hero action? His defenders say it's not merely a matter of muscles. "I think what gives him the possibility of being a huge star (is) you look at Jean-Claude (and see) a guy very much like Arnold. When he flashes that grin. . . ," says Craig Baumgarten, formerly executive vice president of production at 20th Century Fox and now the producer of "Universal Soldier," a $23-million project about a pair of super-soldiers starring Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren.
Nathanson agrees. "He has an unbelievable and uncanny ability to be charming, and we're going to take advantage of that."
And, Nathanson adds, "He's already a star. He already has a base of popularity that's remarkable, not only in this country but overseas." Van Damme's string of low-budget films began in 1987 with "Bloodsport" and include "Cyborg," "Death Warrant," "Kickboxer" and "Lionheart." All of them did well overseas; "Double Impact" had a $3-million opening weekend in France, bigger numbers there than "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves."
Today's low-budget action genre has evolved from the simplistic revenge stories of Westerns into categories including war themes ("Rambo"), alien and sci-fi ("Predator," "Terminator"), fantasy ("Masters of the Universe") and martial arts (Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies).
"Sly (Stallone) and Arnold (Schwarzenegger) and on a lesser level (Charles) Bronson made it a contemporary genre," Baumgarten adds. "They made it something that didn't have to be Old Western or science fiction.
"Really, it was 'Rambo,' " Baumgarten says. " 'Rambo' exploded the genre. It created a larger-than-life kind of hero. All of a sudden, in a contemporary arena, you can have this larger-than-life, almost comic book hero. 'Rambo,' I think, did $150 million. Nobody thought you could do that kind of business."
Hollywood caught on quickly; no one, perhaps, more enthusiastically than Menachem Golan's Cannon Pictures, which in the '80s cranked out "Over the Top" with Stallone, "Missing in Action" with Chuck Norris and "Masters of the Universe" with Dolph Lundgren. Norris, and later Seagal, helped bring mainstream audiences to martial arts movies--in droves.
But the formula needs a star to work. What separates the latest hunk from the health club from stardom? "None of us really knows," Baumgarten adds. "Does it happen with Jeff Speakman (whose "Perfect Weapon" has made $14 million so far in this country but is only now opening overseas) and Dolph Lundgren and the rest of them? We're all guessing." Baumgarten, who was at Fox when the studio took a chance on Bruce Willis in "Die Hard," thinks he knows what makes a successful hero: "What made Arnold a huge star is a certain charisma and accessibility," he says. "Men and women are attracted to him and to his movies, and I think that's not true with a lot of these other guys."
But neither Stallone nor Schwarzenegger came up the karate route, which can be limiting for an actor.
"The problem with American martial arts films is that they are still Westerns. It's still 'You have until sunset to get out of town,' " says John Soet, editor of "Inside Karate" and "Action Film," who holds both a double black belt and a master's degree in film from USC.
"In Asia (movies), the hero will fight because he is cornered, he will fight because he has to fight. In films made in the West, it's for revenge. There is a running joke in the (karate) community about which relative will get killed off to kick off (Van Damme's) next film." (In "Double Impact," the Van Damme character's parents are killed at the film's outset.)
"The heroes end up just being variations on someone we've already seen who is much bigger-- John Wayne, Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson," Soet said. "One person who has treaded this line pretty well is Seagal, who has taken the original firearms-based scripts and throws in martial arts when the last bullet is spent."
What are Van Damme's chances? "He will need better vehicles, better screenplays and better directors," Soet said. "But he definitely has the 'X' factor. People forget Chuck Norris was a martial arts person who attempted to move into film. Jean-Claude was a performer who had a martial arts background. He never said, 'I am a black belt.' He said, 'I am an actor who happens to be a black belt.' That's an important difference."
In publicity material, Van Damme's athletic grace is compared to Mikhail Baryshnikov's. Actually, as a slight, skinny child, Van Damme studied for the ballet and he credits his dance training for his fighting agility ("I am the Fred Astaire of karate," he has said). His father, an accountant, took him to a karate school to build up his body and strengthen his will, and by the time he was 18, Jean-Claude had quit school, started a popular gymnasium in Brussels, made a couple of small movies in France and won the middleweight European Professional Karate Assn. championship. He developed a move that's now his calling card, a karate kick that can clear a person's head, executed during a leaping 360-degree turn.
Then, in 1981, at age 20, he left it all and moved to Los Angeles. "My parents went crazy," Van Damme said during a recent interview at his ranch-style home located on a one-acre lot in the farthest reaches of the West Valley.
Arriving with photographs, body building stories and barely able to speak English, Van Damme's strategy was, basically, knocking on doors. "I'm driving around to see all those action film people, Orion, PSO, Cannon. I was always stopped by the guards." He supported himself by driving limos and taxis, laying carpet and delivering pizza. Acting classes? "No," Van Damme admits.
"I was always dreaming about the big picture," he says. "I would look at a movie and say 'Why not me?' I didn't know about having a name, power and bankability. I thought if I did two or three kicks I'd be a movie star. It was like a dream when you think about it. . . . I was so stupid, naive, but it was a passion."
Then on the way to meet some friends at a Beverly Hills restaurant one evening in 1986, Van Damme ran into Golan, then kingpin of Cannon Films, who was leaving the restaurant. "I shout at him," Van Damme recalls, "Menachem! Van Damme! (pointing at himself). And I gave him the kick right there in the restaurant! Whooosh. I say, 'I'm the best in karate, you have something for me?' "
Golan suggested he drop by the office, and the next day he did--and waited seven hours until the producer saw him. "I know I've got to sell myself. So I look at him and say 'Menachem, it's very simple. I came in this country with nothing and I'm waiting for five or six years and nothing has happened. I'm very hungry. You are my only hope. I've got an accent. They say I'm stupid. You can help me--a small part, anything. I said I was so desperate I'd do it for free."
In Golan's office, Van Damme assumed a karate pose, took off his shirt and did the splits resting only on his heels on two chairs.
Golan, Van Damme says, yelled "Bring me 'Bloodsport,' " throws the script on the desk and says, 'You start shooting in three weeks!' "
Until then, Van Damme had appeared briefly as a manifestation of the alien in Schwarzenegger's "Predator." But he flew to Hong Kong to star in his first film, was paid $50,000, then was told the movie was unreleasable.
When "Bloodsport" was released on the West Coast months later after Van Damme helped re-edit it, it stunned observers by earning more than $5,000 per screen in its first weekend.
Suddenly, Golan was on the phone, demanding Van Damme fulfill a contract to make two more movies for Cannon. "Cyborg" and "Death Warrant" resulted, followed by the somewhat better "Lionhart" and "Kickboxer," the film that opened the door to Columbia Pictures.
"Jon Peters was watching HBO," Van Damme says, "and he called my lawyer and said, 'Who's that kid in 'Kickboxer'? Do you know him?' " In a meeting with Peters, Van Damme says, "I say, 'Jon. Stand up and don't move!' And I kick over his head," he laughs, admitting that "It gets their attention. Whooosh! He says to my lawyer, 'I want this kid!' " And, according to Van Damme, a handshake deal that would change his life was concluded on the spot. Van Damme received $600,000 for 'Double Impact," and his salary escalates to $1.5 million for "Universal Soldier" and to $3.5 million for the next Columbia film. Future movies, he says, will focus more on relationships but still retain the action.
Now, with many of his goals achieved, Van Damme seems to be questioning them, wondering whether he has ended up essentially a caricature. "Let's be honest," he admits, "that's what I am. It's going to take time to change it."
But change to what? "It is something difficult for me to explain," the actor says. "I don't even think about people like Mel Gibson or Arnold or Stallone. I've got great respect for them and they're doing a great job, but I like movies like 'Cool Hand Luke' and Steve McQueen's 'The Sand Pebbles' and 'La Strada.' I'm crying in those movies. "If I talk that way right now, people will say 'what do you think you are?' I know they want me as beefcake, and I've got to survive. But always, I was having a dream."