Resurrecting the ‘Damme’d

A silent renaissance is taking place in the action world. So silent that it appears to have bypassed mainstream Hollywood. In 2008 Cannes took notice, but it was a 2007 feature that really began this transformation.

Don't be fooled by the B-grade poster
Don't be fooled by the B-grade poster

Jean Claude Van Damme or the ‘muscles from Brussels’ is one of the all-time action greats. In the Mangalore of the ‘80s and early ‘90s all out action thrillers dominated the only English theatre – New Chitra. From Chuck Norris’ Delta Force series to Van damme’s Universal Soldier and Hard Target, I caught these movies either at the theatre or Madhu Bazaar, which happened to be the best English video library at that time.

The slam bang action movies gave way to more serious fare and the gradual shift in tastes clouded out the past. Re-runs on Start Movies and HBO failed to enthuse me any longer with the exploits of Chuck Norris (save for Delta Force, my personal favourite), Van Damme, Rutger Hauer or the martial art mayhem from China and Hong Kong.

That was until last month. Though I may not watch these action stars with the same childish enthusiasm, I still have a soft corner for these blokes. They took the blows that made us laugh and grip our seats during the stunt climaxes (no wonder most of the New Chitra seats were rickety, I guess they may have changed them by now), made me day-dream about joining the commandos and riding a bike off an aircraft carrier with a parachute stuck on my back, made me kickass with guys twice my size when they thought I was an easy punching bag to satisfy their sadistic whims.

Back to Van Damme. JCVD released in 2008 brought the actor back into the limelight. I did not see the movie, but reviews of it heralded a new Van Damme – a thinking, dedicated method actor who could move away from the splits and instead split the critics with a performance of a lifetime. I am waiting to get my hands on this movie, but then one day I get a call from Christy Bharath telling me to switch on my TV for the 9 PM movie on Star.

What followed is a surreal Van Damme experience. ‘Until Death’ is Van Damme’s finest ever performance (remember, I have not watched JCVD yet). Breaking away from the stereotypes, he plays a crooked cop, and when I say crooked I mean he’s really mean and it shows. Infidelity, drugs, irresponsibility, dishonesty, disloyalty – every rule (of an action movie hero) was broken in the first half of the movie by Van Damme’s crooked cop. The latter part of the second half plunges into typical Van Damme fare, but the change in persona throughout the movie is a master act.

Maybe it was the shock of seeing Van Damme completely out of the type or seeing him match wits with Stephen Rea, a talented British actor, both these actors were playing against stereotype. As the movie moves on you can’t help but feel sorry for Van Damme. The scars show and somewhere, somehow the pain and anger he feels and expresses in the movie seems to be personal. Relegated to the fringes of the action hero genre and in danger of being junked, Van Damme had gone back to straight-to-DVD fare and surprisingly this movie too was one of those. There are traces of a straight-to DVD movie (poor actors, typical action scenes…) but then I guess Van Damme surprised even the whole crew with this performance whereas the director would have expected the standard hangdog look (perfected by Nicholas Cage) while playing out the opening sequences.

Until Death has blood, guts and glory but completely reloaded this time by Van Damme. There is a renaissance in the action movie genre that is making its presence felt among the Benjamin Buttons, Slumdogs, Milk et al. We had Rocky Balboa and John Rambo make it up there recently and now it’s the turn of the beefcakes from the ‘80s to sucker punch Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, George Clooney and all the other pretty boys who line up on a carpet where crimson wine is spilt and not blood. It won’t be long before Van Damme, Rourke, Stallone, Lundgren and co. create a bloodbath at the box office.

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