Taking Silly Seriously: The 90s Niche of Jean-Claude Van Damme in Sheldon Lettich’s Double Impact

| Chris Polley |

A close-up of Jean-Claude Van Damme as Alex, scruffy and serious with a toothpick in his mouth against a blurred background.

Double Impact plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, August 25th, through Sunday, August 27th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.

Nine years ago, as is the American way, a viral car commercial brought us all together. Advertising Volvo’s state-of-the-art dynamic steering, it showed a chiseled man in his 50s atop two large trucks, his stance wide and firm, with one foot planted on each of the behemoths’ cab roofs. He narrated about becoming the man he was not in spite of life’s challenges but because of them. He says, “What you see is a body crafted to perfection,” and then the two trucks begin to drive elegantly apart from each other as the camera pulls back to show none other than former Hollywood action star Jean-Claude Van Damme doing the splits between the two massive automobiles, staying calm and focused throughout as Enya’s music swells in the background.

Think pieces on this commercial’s appeal to emotion and video commentary on its veracity sprang up instantly, parodies starring Channing Tatum and Chuck Norris were filmed, and for a brief moment, perhaps, the world was healed. What made our hearts and minds aflutter, though, wasn’t actually the fact that we were being sold a giant truck with impeccable steering. It was something even more universal: a handsome guy doing a silly thing. This is essentially all so many of us want to bear witness to at least once every few days (ideally, more frequently) to keep us going in this dark world—a man with visible cheekbones wowing us with his choice to complete a task that is, visually and logistically, very goofy. 

Rewind further back now to 1991, a mere three years after Van Damme burst onto the public’s radar with the incendiary, insane, and incredible Bloodsport (directed by Newt Arnold, a guy with a great name and an eye patch that just so happened to also be an assistant director on The Godfather Part II), and we have the “muscles from Brussels” (oh how I wish I had a rhyming nickname that explained my place of origin) already providing the cinematic equivalent of Otto the bus driver on The Simpsons pontificating about “those guitars that are, like, double guitars”: a half-baked idea Van Damme conjures up and co-writes with his writer-director buddy Sheldon Lettich. Double Impact features twin protagonists, both played by Jean-Claude himself, and you better believe they’re beating up everyone in Hong Kong that may or may not be involved in a criminal enterprise and/or the deaths of their parents.

“Van Damme is clearly no Jeremy Irons, but then Irons probably couldn’t bust heads with such panache,” wrote Washington Post film critic Richard Harrington upon the release of the action flick Double Impact, comparing the Belgian brute to the renowned star’s performance in 1988’s Dead Ringers.[1] If David Cronenberg’s stranger-than-fiction biopic of twin gynecologists is a masterclass in unsettling psychological horror (and it is), then watching Lettich’s Double Impact is skipping class to go see how high the guy in the grade above you can kick in the stairwell and maybe also watch him kiss his beautiful girlfriend as he leaves campus without permission in his Mazda Miata.

A long shot of Jean-Claude Van Damme in brightly colored spandex as Chad kicking high in the air with several women students watching, against a background of pastel paint and a gloriously 80s glass block half-wall.

To best understand the kind of joyful disregard for art and narrative happening on screen, it’s of course just best to see it for yourself, but I’m happy to provide some behind-the-scenes proof of the kind of proudly silly stuff that makes its way onto celluloid, consider this chestnut straight from the source, in which he describes the consequence a producer faced for suggesting some of the film’s budget get reallocated to a Dolph Lundgren production:

“There was a papaya [on the set]. I don’t know why. But I took the papaya and I just threw it at him,” Van Damme recounted for Yahoo! Entertainment. “Thank God he ducked.”[2]

This man was not going to let any of his climactic explosion and roundhouse kick-to-the-face money go to the future star of Kindergarten Cop 2 (Dolph and JCVD, of course, quickly became friends and frequent co-stars after that). No, he made sure he had every cent he could wring out of those Hollywood suits to put his vision up on screen—and, to drop the hyperbolic and ironic voice for a moment, the fact that he was so laser-focused and hyper-prolific in the film industry proves why anyone still cares one iota about Jean-Claude Van Damme in 2023. Indulge him or hate him, he was in his element in this era of action shlock.

In the early 90s, “[he] was desperately eager to please, enthusiasm bursting from his pores as he bounced around the talk show circuit, doing the splits for paparazzi outside LA nightclubs,” writes Alex Godfrey for The Guardian[3]. And oh how he does those miraculous splits so iconically in Double Impact as well. Of course, there is spandex and bold camera placement (Body Heat and King Kong director of photography Richard H. Kline!) involved too. Van Damme’s beefy, boisterous screen presence is an odd delight for many, this writer included, but it may come as no surprise that the star and his films were very much maligned afterthoughts during his heyday.

“The critics, if they even bother to take notice, have ridiculed them, implying that an interest in the actor’s on-screen exploits is, like acne, one of the more unfortunate side effects of puberty,” David Richards wrote for The New York Times in a 1994 profile of the actor/producer, whose image Universal Pictures very much wanted to rebrand leading up to the release of the sci-fi movie Timecop (it worked, if only for Timecop, which remains JCVD’s highest grossing picture to date at $101 million, not counting ensemble/animated film work)[4]. It’s a clever dig, but it belies a more important point that perhaps Richards simply did not have the foresight to acknowledge: Doing something well is one choice, and doing something with your whole throat is another.

A medium two-shot of Jean-Claude Van Damme as both Chad, with wavy hair, and Alex, with slicked back hair, both in dark jackets against a poorly double exposed, dim background.

Van Damme has also become self-aware in the intervening years, even as he continues to project a certain persona in car commercials. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter just last year (yes, he has a new action movie at age 62, and no, it has not been picked up by a distributor yet), he said this about his string of successes from the late 80s and early 90s: “You know, a lot of people tell me that those movies haven’t aged. Maybe I know why. It’s about sincerity. If you’re sincere in your role and believe in your part, that—plus all the martial arts—helps the audience ignore the poor background.”[5] And it might just be that simple. Like so many of his brethren both contemporary, ancestral, and in the future, Jean-Claude never didn’t believe in what he was doing. The magic of the strong and the silly was enough for him, and sometimes it’s enough for even the most pretentious film nerd.

If Jackie Chan is the logical result of Buster Keaton, as the Trylon itself suggested by running a series of films featuring both icons, and while he may not be the Charlie Chaplin or even Harold Lloyd (okay, nor Douglas Fairbanks nor Helen Gibson) of his era, like so many silent film stars that did their own stunts, JCVD remains overzealous yet pure; aggressive yet charming. While untalented in many areas of acting and storytelling, he will—and deserves to—forever be remembered fondly by those of us of a certain age that ate fried rice with our older brothers while hypnotized by the VHS, crackling and buzzing as Van Damme smiled and punched, unapologetically jacked and silly.


1 Richard Harrington, “‘Double Impact’,” The Washington Post, August 12, 1991.

2 Kevin Polowy, “‘I was just crazy at the time’: Jean-Claude Van Damme recalls throwing a papaya at producer’s head as ‘Double Impact’ turns 30,” Yahoo! Entertainment, August 6, 2021.

3 Alex Godfrey, “Jean-Claude Van Damme: ‘I tried to play the system; I was blacklisted’” The Guardian, August 10, 2012.

4 David Richards, “Jean-Claude Van Damme, the, uh, Actor?,” The New York Times, September 4, 1994.

5 Alex Ritman, “Jean-Claude Van Damme on His New Passion Project and Why He Won’t Be Retiring Anytime Soon,” The Hollywood Reporter, November 2, 2022.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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