Comparing the Incomparable:
Jean-Claude Van Damme vs. Steven Seagal
Their careers are essentially dead, today's generation has little idea who they are, and you won't likely see any 'Special' or 'Collector's Editions' of any of their movies in the immediate future. So why do we care? Well, both Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal began their careers at relatively the same time (1988-89) and the prime of their careers spanned the same amount of movies (11). Unfortunately, neither appeared on the screen together, but today we're pitting their respective careers against each other to find out who was the better white kung fu action star of the last two decades.
To accomplish this, we will look at how many bonafide quality movies each made in their career, how each actor's best movie stacks up against the other, as well as their legacy today. It guarantees to be a wild (though unconsequential) ride, so fasten your silk kimonos and tie back your curled mullet. But first, a primer on both of our contenstants:
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Born in Belgium as Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg (thanks mom and dad!), Van Damme fought his way up the European kickboxing circuit before trying his hand at Hollywood, where he was helped along by Chuck Norris. In the mid 80s, he started work on what would later be 'Bloodsport,' but due to waning interest from the studio, it wouldn't be until 1988 when it was finally released, boldly marking Van Damme's entrance to the thriving late 80s beat-em-up genre. His sophomore effort, the who-cares sci-fi slop 'Cyborg,' was forgettable, but Van Damme unleashed a fury of hits in the next two and a half years with 'Kickboxer,' 'Lionheart,' 'Death Warrant,' 'Double Impact' and 'Universal Soldier.'
Van Damme combined with legendary action director John Woo to make his best movie, then underrated 'Hard Target' of 1993, and had a minor hit the following year with 'Time Cop,' but it was clear then that interest in Van Damme was falling at the box office. His last real theatrical release, 'Sudden Death,' bombed with audiences and marked the end of his career as a first-run actor.
Van Damme's movies typically featured him as a down-on-his-luck jeans-wearing gentle guy with one hell of a mean streak. His fighting style favored power kicks over speed, and he generally stayed away from guns until his later years.
Not much is known about the real background of Seagal. A Vanity Fair article a few years ago revealed that he may have lied about having a CIA background (a common practice because the agency does not confirm nor deny the employment of former agents) to further his career as an elite fighting instructor. What is known is that Seagal spent many years honing his craft (primarily aikido) before he was spotted by a Hollywood producer. His debut 'Above the Law' was an instant hit and followed by the popular 'Hard to Kill' and 'Marked for Death,' which both came out in 1990. 'Hard to Kill' is still criminally underrated and is regarded by many Seagal fans as his best movie and one of the best beat-em-up movies of the decade.
In his first three films, Seagal demonstrated his unique aikido style, which relied on transforming the moves of his opponent into crippling blows. The most famous example of this is in 'Hard to Kill,' when he snaps a villain's arm by bending it over his other arm in one fluid motion. But it was Seagal's next film that would be his biggest hit. 1992's 'Under Siege' was a true blockbuster and one of the best action movies of its era. Adding more weapons play and some end-of-the-world danger, along with his playful sidekick (former Playboy Playmate Erika Eleniak, who enjoyed a semi-career after 'Under Siege') made for quite a successful combination. But he would never come close to matching the success of 'Under Siege,' as his subsequent movies (even 'Under Siege 2') were all worse than their predecessors.
Body of Work
Seagal undoubtedly had the biggest hit, but it could be argued that Van Damme had a more consistent career, with seven quality movies, compared to Seagal's five (he gets marked down for 'On Deadly Ground,' his post 'Under Siege 2' movies and his role in 'Executive Decision' was too small to count). Van Damme's 'Double Impact,' 'Nowhere to Run' and 'Cyborg' don't make the cut, but 'Lionheart' and 'Death Warrant' just sneak in due to how well they were received at the time.
Edge: Van Damme
Best of the Best
This is a tough one for Van Damme to win, as his best work 'Hard Target' isn't as well known or did as well at the box office as 'Under Siege.' While Van Damme benefitted from Woo's expert lens and casting (where have you gone, Lance Henrickson?), Seagal had a great suspenseful story and a perfect villain in Tommy Lee Jones. 'Hard Target' has the murky shadows of New Orleans and the mysterious bayou, but 'Under Siege' has a battleship overrun with terrorists and even a submarine. In the end, this is a battle Van Damme cannot win, even with his trademark roundhouse kick.
It all comes down to this, and the hardest category to decide to boot. So how has life treated our action stars since their careers have ended? Well, Van Damme has been in and out of cocaine rehab and Seagal has been reduced to a pudgier version of himself, still trying to make it as an action star. Since they both have fallen on hard times, let's look at how their movies will remembered. As I see it, Van Damme's good looks will be outweighed by Seagal's more entertaining fighting style, which looks good on film and is sure to be more cherished than Van Damme's high kicks. Also, not having an accent helps his cause. Sorry, Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg.
It was a time that may never be repeated in Hollywood for those lucky enough to live through it. Seagal and Van Damme may not have made that many (or good) movies, but did provide a generation of adolescent boys a glimmer of hope that, yes, white guys can indeed kick ass.
Friday, September 16, 2005
Filed Under Casual whimsy