Act Like a Man is a column examining male screen performers past and present, across nationality and genre. If movie stars reflect the needs and desires of their audience in any particular era, examining their personas, popularity, fandom, and specific appeals has plenty to tell us about the way cinema has constructed—and occasionally deconstructed—manhood on our screens.
In Mabrouk El-Mechri’s 2008 drama JCVD, aging action star Jean-Claude Van Damme plays... an aging action star named Jean-Claude Van Damme. At home in Belgium, where he’s a national hero in spite of the fact that his best days are behind him, the actor finds himself suddenly caught in a robbery and hostage situation worthy of any of his films. Touching on Van Damme’s years of debauched behavior with women and drugs, the film features fourth-wall breaks, faux-documentary scenes, in-jokes about past work, and a heavy vein of melancholy. In one long direct-to-camera monologue, Van Damme chokes back tears as he talks about his troubles, culminating in a despairing cry: “I ask myself what I’ve done in this life? Nothing!”
Van Damme is startlingly good in the role, using his familiar musculature as if it’s weighing him down; he’s weary, but still prideful. He exhibits a level of self-awareness that may be more overt than ever before—but it was always there. Whether it be voicing characters in Kung Fu Panda (2008) or parodying himself in commercials, Van Damme has in later years embraced the silliness of his persona, a move that makes his aging action hero contemporaries look dour by comparison.
But if there was any one element of Van Damme’s persona that he was always both conscious of and good at exploiting, it has to be his sex appeal. If some of Van Damme’s classic ‘90s martial arts films—Double Impact (1991), Hard Target (1993), and later, with Swelter (2014) and Pound of Flesh (2015), et cetera—have names that sound rather like pornography titles, that feels pretty fitting. Among his hyper-macho cohort Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, he was by far the most overt sex object.
Van Damme was a karate champion and dance student who had focused on martial arts since his childhood in Belgium. When he moved to the U.S. as a young man, he worked as a bouncer, an extra, and a stuntman before he was discovered and got his starring role in Bloodsport (1988). The producer of the movie, Mark di Salle, said it best when he noted that Van Damme was what he’d been looking for: “a new martial arts star who was a ladies' man, and appeals to both men and women.”
Fair-haired and square jawed, with enormously broad shoulders but a more compact physique than giants like Dolph Lundgren, Van Damme was handsome in an approachable way. With his signature splits that always showed off a pert, well-rounded bottom and his bulging muscles exhibited by string vests a size or two too small, Van Damme was also always objectifying himself for the camera. A series of bathtubs, lakes, and showers seemed to constantly be revealing him in the nude; someone is always walking in on him. “I don’t know if I wanna fight you or fuck you,” a (male) enemy says to him in Lionheart (1991). “He has a big penis,” a little girl who catches him bathing says matter-of-factly in Nowhere to Run (1993). (“He has an average penis,” her mother, played by Roseanna Arquette, corrects her, in what may be the strangest example of mother-child interaction in nearly any ‘90s movie.) Slicked down or sweaty, his bare torso was almost as recognizable as his bare bottom. He put them both on display with the same arbitrariness usually reserved for topless women.
As balletically brilliant as he was with his spinning kicks and flying fists, Van Damme also had a winning, self-deprecating grin that made him goofily likable. Whether he was punching a rattlesnake or displaying his ass with a knowing smirk over his shoulder to camera, Van Damme didn’t mind if you laughed along the way. Self-seriousness wasn’t his primary mode. In commercial hits like Kickboxer (1989), an oh-so-eighties dance scene devolves into a bar brawl. In Double Impact (1991), Van Damme plays a dual role as long-lost twins, one of which is a spoiled Los Angeles fitness instructor. His character is introduced with a memorably lusty, tongue-in-cheek sequence. He instructs a group of nubile young women in aerobics gear by guiding them in their “stretches” and then displays his own groin muscles in skintight leggings, thrusting suggestively to a cooing audience of girls. It’s such a playful nod to his popularity with women that it’s impossible to think he wasn’t in on it.
Van Damme’s interview with Playgirl magazine in 1993 confirmed as much. “I’m very surprised for an action star to have so much fan mail from female fans. That’s why I did Nowhere to Run—just to do something different with more of a story on the love side, the relationship side. I’m trying to please them.”
For Nowhere to Run, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, of Basic Instinct fame, but the response was lukewarm. Still, it was an interesting effort to do just as Van Damme had said—appeal more broadly to female fans and try a part as a romantic lead opposite Rosanna Arquette. Vanessa Letts, for the Spectator newspaper, wrote of the film, “The plot is a succession of flimsy excuses for dressing Van Damme up and stripping him down again.” This is accurate, though admittedly the kind of complaint I struggle to agree with. If Van Damme’s desirability seems a little ridiculous to women now, just remember: he made a cameo as himself in a 1994 episode of Friends, where Monica and Rachel fought over his attentions. In retrospect, this may be the ultimate symbol of his pull during the early part of the decade.
It was also clear that it wasn’t just women Van Damme appealed to. In a Movieline interview the following year, Van Damme said, “It doesn’t disturb me to have gay fans. Maybe they like me because they have a high level of taste.” Egotistical—and broadly stereotypical—though it was, it showed a canniness for homoeroticism that can be seen throughout Van Damme’s films. As scholar Yvonne Tasker has written, it’s hard to miss the fact that Van Damme perfectly resembles a model for a Tom of Finland sketch, and she’s far from the only academic to point out the barely-disguised gay impulses in “hardbody” action movies of this era. The hyper-masculinity of stars like Van Damme is pumped up; his slick muscles are covered in army gear, and other signifiers of violence and machismo are working to undercut anything that might be interpreted as—simply—"too gay.”
The apotheosis of this must be in Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier (1992), where Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are reanimated super soldiers pitted against one another because they happen to remember their enmity in a previous life. It’s roughly as silly as it sounds, but great fun to watch, particularly as Van Damme relearns how to eat and do other basic tasks with some hilarious misunderstandings. Emmerich, a gay man, has great fun continuing to find excuses to strip two super henchmen down on every occasion. In this case, the excuse is truly great: the super-soldiers can fatally overheat and need to be cooled down by semi-regular ice baths in the nude. Repeatedly, the eroticized Van Damme would flirt with the camera, knowing that he was as appealing to women and gay men as he was to the red-blooded martial arts movie audience. The Muscles from Brussels had brains when it came to his persona, and no shame when it came to showing his ass.