Though most cinephiles look at Jean-Claude Van Damme as the martial arts guy with the funny accent, JCVD represents more to many action movie aficionados. His filmography starts by representing the excesses of the 80s and 90s, only to become more self-aware in its later years, finally becoming comfortable in its cheesiness.
A Van Damme movie might not always be art-house cinema, but it’s always exciting. So instead of focusing on what it isn’t, let’s celebrate its exciting extravagance by taking a look at the ten greatest stunts and set pieces ever filmed by the Muscles from Brussels.
10 Kicking A Cigar Out Of A Dead Man’s Face (Hard Target)
The first entry on this list, from the 1993 classic Hard Target, is simple, yet elegant. It showcases JCVD’s grace and precision with a single strike: This spin-kick is so on point that it not only knocks down the bad guy for good, it also kicks the cigar right out of his mouth. Some points have to be deducted since the baddie had already been shot multiple times before this feat was achieved and was basically dead on his feet at that point.
9 Kicks A Knife Into A Man’s Chest (The Expendables 2)
This one is similar to the first entry but differs in two important places. The first one is that Van Damme is actually the bad guy in this scene. The second one is that this spin kick actually causes his enemy’s demise, unlike the one in Hard Target.
The precision is still there: His henchman gives him a tiny target, that being the handle of a knife, and JCVD hits it with deadly accuracy, like a lethal version of the bottle cap challenge.
8 Fighting The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mascot (Sudden Death)
Sudden Death might be one of Van Damme’s most underappreciated movies, which is a shame because it contains one of the most quintessential JCVD scenes ever filmed: His fight with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ mascot mixes in real danger with goofy moments to create a true showcase of the man’s brand: action and drama that never takes itself too seriously.
The highlight here is surely the multiple punches and kicks to the mascot’s suit, which somehow damages the villain that’s inside the fluffy armor anyway.
7 Splitting On A Kitchen Counter To Avoid Being Electrocuted (Timecop)
When Van Damme is not busy doing the splits in mid-air to kick someone’s head off, he also enjoys doing the splits for other reasons: He does it as a crowd-pleasing move in Double Impact, and he does it for training purposes in… every one of his movies, more or less.
In Timecop, it’s a life-saving measure. When cornered by a bad guy with a taser and a floor full of water, his only choice is to split on top of a kitchen counter. The guy must have been really good at playing “The Floor Is Lava”.
6 The Entire Fruit Market Fight Scene (Knock Off)
A more elaborate set piece, the fruit market fight scene in Knock Off is a combination of multiple stunts filmed at a more frantic pace than what JCVD usually does. In fact, it’s almost reminiscent of a Jackie Chan movie. From defending against multiple machete-wielding henchmen to carrying Rob Schneider to safety through an entire brawl, Van Damme shows once again that he can make the most unbelievable bits entertaining. This is ten minutes of action that save an otherwise mediocre film.
5 A Dance And A Fight (Kickboxer)
Probably one of the most famous Van Damme moments of all-time, and there’s a reason why people still talk about it. Kickboxer is an otherwise brutal film, one that concentrates on gritty training montages and violent in-ring fights.
The dance scene, where Van Damme shows that he can get his groove on and beat up some nameless baddies in one fluid motion, is the culmination of everything the man trained for in real-life: It’s his mastery of karate mixed with his ballet training that gives him an elegance few other action stars can imitate.
4 Fighting Mickey Rourke In A Roman Coliseum Surrounded By Land Mines (Double Team)
The set-up is absolutely ludicrous: Van Damme, trying to save a baby, has to fight Mickey Rourke during his craziest period, in the middle of a Roman Coliseum, with land mines buried at random places. Also, there’s a tiger on the loose, and he has to carry Dennis Rodman to action movie respectability.
It shouldn’t work (and it arguably doesn’t on pure artistic merits), but it does make for one unforgettable scene, especially when he tops it off by shielding himself from a deadly explosion with a Coke machine.
3 Van Damme, The One-Man Army (Universal Soldier: Regeneration)
For a pure, no non-sense look at what makes Jean-Claude Van Damme such a great action star, one should look at the final 15 minutes of Universal Soldier: Regeneration. In one long scene, Van Damme takes down an entire army.
First, he mows them down with his gun; when that runs out, he switches to a knife, and then his bare hands. He finishes this symphony of destruction by killing his old nemesis (Dolph Lundgren’s Andrew Scott), and by taking down the new bad guy played by Andrei Arlovski. Probably Van Damme’ most thrilling burst of action.
2 The Fight Against Chong Li (Bloodsport)
All of Bloodsport should be on this list, but one particular scene pushes it over the top: The final fight with Chong Li, where Van Damme’s Frank Dux finally puts it all together and avenges everyone. It’s not too drawn out, and it’s brutal to a point where you begin to wonder if Van Damme and Bolo Yeung were even trying to pull their punches and kicks. It’s a masterpiece of martial arts filmmaking.
1 Biting The Tail Off A Rattlesnake To Use It As A Booby Trap (Hard Target)
And now, for the craziest thing Van Damme ever had to do: When confronted by a dangerous rattlesnake in a Louisiana bayou, the magnificently named Chance Boudreaux does not flinch. Instead, he grabs it by throat, punches it into unconsciousness, and leaves it up in a tree as a trap for the people hunting him. What’s crazier is that IT WORKS. Of course, it’s hardly a stunt, as Van Damme was never in any real danger and did not actually fight anyone other than a snake puppet, but it’s too iconic not to mention.