Be a Man—The Van Damme Way™! An Entirely Unauthorized Guide to the Films and Virility of Jean-Claude Van Damme

Here’s a book proposal of mine that never went anywhere. It’s a shame, but no so much of a shame that I wouldn’t put it up here.



Hey men—tired of not knowing how to be a man?

Hey ladies—frustrated with men who don’t know how to be    manly?

Would you read a book that sorts out all these confusions and makes for a more fulfilling life? Of course–what a stupid question!

Introducing Be a Man—The Van Damme Way™! (in no way officially affiliated, endorsed or medically recommended by the greatest action hero actor of all cinema, Jean-Claude Van Damme). This book and, by proxy, its author (me), strive to achieve the impossible: review the entire canon of JCVD’s work, film by film, and reveal the Rosetta Stone of masculinity that exists therein. Hard to believe? Which part, the “masculinity” part or the “entire canon” part?  Seriously, not a stupid question: dude has made almost fifty films.

You can point to your Schwarzeneggers, your Stallones, your Seagals, your Willises, both Bruce and Todd Bridges (Willis of Diff’rent Strokes, who did appear in the Insane Clown Posse opus Big Money Rustlas as Scruffy Scrub #3 so, I appreciate the chance for confusion), but they all embodied a hollow form of manliness that is best summed up as Macho Regan-Era Ass-Kickers: a whole lot of  1980’s “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” plus “trickle-down economics” with a dash of “sado-masochistic homoeroticism”. Pre-heat the oven at four hundred degrees and bake. For how long? As long as it takes for that fucker to kick the door open and dispatch your sous chef with an Uzi and a “witty” yet monosyllabic one-liner, that’s how long. And in today’s hectic, dog-eat-dog, drive-thru culture, who’s got the time?

Now God knows we need good ass-kickings now and again. But if fine classical musicianship is as much about the notes not played as the ones played, then true masculinity is in the eyes not gouged. Correspondingly, if showing vulnerability is the true sign of strength, then doing so while performing the splits on two edges of a kitchen counter to avoid an electrocuted floor, then that person is so much the stronger (see Timecop).

We need absolutes in times like these. When women make up a greater percentage of the work force but men are still expected to pick up the cost of the abortion, we require a magnetic north to cross such treacherous waters. I suggest that Jean-Claude Van Damme is just such a geomagnetic verging of magnetic declinations.

After years of cinematic study and manliness failure, I have determined that the entire spectrum of positive male traits is prevalent in the films of Mr. Van Damme. One might suggest that my failures in masculinity are directly linked to my years of Van Damme investigation, but these are people who miss the greater point, i.e. my ex-girlfriends.

The proof in JCVD’s films and his finely wrought performances are endless: whether peeling back the layers of a widowed cop confronted with the ethical choice of using a time traveling device to save his late wife or just to apprehend bad guys in Timecop (Why couldn’t he just do both? A good question…); a cyborg programmed for warfare coming to grips with an emerging humanity and the virtues of pacifism in Universal Soldier; a hard-working father deciding whether to save his son from a hockey arena held hostage by terrorists before or after suiting up as goalie to win the Stanley Cup for the Pittsburgh Penguins in Sudden Death; to a cyborg genetically-engineered to track down a serial killer who comes to terms with his emerging humanity in Replicant. Even his stunning debut as “Gay Karate Man” in Monaco Forever shows a bravery in portraying every color across the masculinity rainbow.

Those leery of my thesis would benefit from regarding the totality of Van Damme’s work in the same way one should view Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu: if you watch Street Fighter the same way you read In the Shadow of Young Girls Flower, well you’re just not getting the whole picture.

Gentle reader and seeker of masculine wisdom, I am here to help. For not only do I intend to look at each of JCVD’s films in detail, with special attention paid to lessons learned by men at any pivotal stage in their lives (loss of innocence—see Kickboxer, sins of the father—see The Order, the moral quandary of a clothing counterfeiter drafted by the CIA to break an international producer of forged designer jeans that conceal “microbombs”, as opposed to genuine designer jeans which almost never explode—see Knock Off), I will provide many handy examples of how these modes of masculine behavior can be applied to your everyday life—The Van Damme Way™!

JCVD_2Much like a Shakespearean tragedy (but only if Shakespeare had the stones to finish his off on an “upbeat” note), we shall review Van Damme’s films in five parts:

  1. The Rise Begins: from uncredited yet head-turning roles such as Car Driver in Missing in Action to Spectator in First Dance Sequence in Breakin’, we detect a sensibility that will become readily apparent when Van Damme blade kicks his way into the spotlight.
  2. A Star Is Forged (alternately known as The Cannon Years): From Bloodsport, where JCVD takes the title, center stage, and pummels the shit out of our hearts, to Hard Target, where he introduces John Woo and flocks of slow-motion doves to North America. Boys and inebriated men the world over try to mimic his famous ability to do the “Atomic splits”. Hamstrings are snapped, testicles are ruptured, cases are settled out of court.
  3. Superstar: Timecop sees Van Damme headline a major studio picture (and tame his mullet from Hard Target), play a member of the elite foreign legion in Legionnaire (note to filmmakers: do not title your film after a disease and expect anything but box-office poison: also, don’t release theatrically and to DVD at the same time), and live out every boy’s dream of embodying a video game hero to destroy an apparently AIDS-ravaged boss villain in Street Fighter: The Movie (poor Raul Julia). The pressure of being all men to all mankind wears on JCVD and the cracks start to show. The ballooning cocaine addiction doesn’t help.
  4. The DTV Slide: We see what is, by now, an all-too familiar trajectory—a series of direct-to-video cheapies shot in Eastern Europe for quick name-recognition cash. This is not a surprise for more one-dimensional action heroes such as Wesley Snipes and Steven Seagal (with a hotel room in Prague reserved for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, presumably), but a shocking decline for our hero. From Inferno to The Shepherd (a film notable as much for its critical stance on America’s War on Drugs as it is for being Van Damme’s sixth time playing a character whose surname ends with the letter ‘X’), Van Damme puts in his time, cleans up his act, and finds his kin geri (stomach kick) is no match in his battle against rapid cycling bipolar disorder or most divorce lawyers.
  5. Redemption: JCVD is made, a quasi-autobiographical account of an aging action film star holed-up in a botched post office robbery. This film presents the entirety of Van Damme’s artistry, both martial and acting. It plays at film festivals around the world and he is suddenly a hot commodity once again. He uses his most valuable instrument, his voice, to appear in Kung Fu Panda 2 and achieves a circle-of-life moment by playing hard to get for Stallone before finally signing to appear in The Expendables 2: Of Course We Cast Chuck Norris.

Think it can’t get any better? Well go back to your thinking spot and think some more! Edifying and life-changing essays will sparkle throughout, including a winsome, yet rib-crunching piece on the Death of the Action Star: nowadays it takes a $200 million budget and twice that in publicity to launch an actor-proof franchise like Batman, whereas in 1985 even a charisma-challenged mannequin like Kurt Thomas could open a dud like Gymkata (a fine form of martial arts, provided villains don’t know enough to stay away from back alley appearances of  a pommel horse or the uneven bars); a true-life event that actually happened that I just thought up, Meetin’ J.L.G. (JCVD vs. JLG), a one-act play depicting directors Van Damme and Jean-Luc Godard nervously awaiting the debut of their films, The Quest and For Ever Mozart respectively, at a prestigious film festival in Albany; and a definitive assessment of Van Damme’s signature move in The Splits: A Useful Tool In Your Martial Arts Arsenal Or Just A Waste Of Warm-Up Time?

Whew!  That’s a lot of book. Maybe too much? Bullshit!

The book is called Be a Man—The Van Damme Way™! It must include a system for living your life in a balanced, well-rounded masculine manner (if not to justify the title, then at least the trademark).

Included in The Van Damme Way™!

  • Defuse a situation without violence and possibly through dance—The VDW™!
  • Kicking crazy amounts of ass—The VDW™!
  • Ironing a shirt—The VDW™!
  • Negotiating a raise—The VDW™!
  • Marital bliss—The VDW™!
  • Beating Van Damme in a fight—The VDW™!
  • International diplomacy—The VDW™!
  • Romance your lady—The VDW™!
  • Self-awareness—The VDW™!
  • Talk about yourself in the third person—The VDW™!
  • Defending yourself in nature specifically by punching animals—The VDW™!

In the end, there is no book like it in the world (see exceptions below).  This makes it difficult to encapsulate for the average writer, but I’m made of sterner stuff, so here goes: this book is part off-beat film analysis, part sociological study and part self-help book—but all man.

The Van Damme Way™!


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