muscles from brussels

there was a period in the late 80s and early 90s when only one person in our circle of friends in sector 21, noida had a vcr and a flat devoid of parents where we could watch movies, get drunk and behave badly (not always in that order). unfortunately, the vcr and the flat belonged to the biggest and loudest member of the group, who also had appalling taste, and as a result we all became experts in such genres as thai kickboxing movies and also in the careers of such lumniaries as jean-claude van damme. i think it is misplaced nostalgia for these misspent years that drives my continued obsession with van damme–though there is also my general obsession with crap action movies (as documented on this blog). all this as preamble to the admission that i watched nowhere to run on ondemand last night.

it is, of course, terrible, but again enjoyably so. van damme is a convict on the run who takes up with a single mother and her kids (a culkin among them) on their farm and protects them against corrupt law enforcement and the big city thugs who are trying to muscle her into selling her farm so the area can be developed. why exactly this place in the middle of nowhere would be turned into an expensive development is not clear, but if such questions bother you then you are a fool and i pity you. this film does provoke some more interesting questions, however, and these are as follows:

1. does the fact that rosanna arquette does a full-frontal nude scene 10 minutes into a van damme movie (followed by fairly explicit sex with van damme later in the film) suggest that this was the nadir of her career (this is the year before pulp fiction) or is it only demonstration of her essential rosanna arquetteness?

2. how many different countries have van damme’s characters been said to be from in his movies, and has belgium ever actually been one of them? in this one he’s from quebec.

3. why do van damme’s relationships in the movies never have truly happy endings? he’s more emotionally available than steven seagal–who never seems to actually have interest in romance–and (as described above) actually has sex in his movies but long-term relationships seem sealed off to him. this intrigues me. in this film, for instance, he could have been a lonely drifter who stays put at the end of the film. instead he’s an escaped con who fixes things and then goes back to jail.

4. has there been another film in the last 20 years in which the male star has exposed himself (walking naked out of a pond in this case) to both a young boy and a young girl? and if so, in this film does the young girl make reference a few scenes later to his nakedness and tell her mother, “he’s got a big penis”? furthermore is there another scene in which the young boy remarking on the fact that the man who spent the night in his mother’s bed has not yet woken late in the day asks her knowingly, “what did you do to him”? because, you understand, all these things happen in nowhere to run. perhaps joe eszterhas being one of the three architects of the screenplay has something to do with it, but this film is clearly making a strong statement about children and sexuality. i trust well-known pornographer jim kincaid is looking into it.

5. has anyone studied the way in which a sub-genre of hyper-violent action movies keeps alive a nostalgic vision of a more bucolic way of life?

anyway–that’s it for me. maybe i’ll watch the professional for the second time tonight. it’s either that or jim brown and raquel welch (not to mention burt reynolds as a native american) in 100 rifles (a film i actually saw when i was nine years old).

15 thoughts on “muscles from brussels”

  1. I really like your idea in question 5. Despite Van Damme’s foreigner status, I wonder if that’s an American quality – or does it resonate beyond. So you’d not count films like Witness – but really just focus on the crap right? Would Road House count? Swayze lives in a barn after all, and he lets his old hot rod get all beat up – perhaps cuz that was a city car. Arnab, what other films do you think fall into this category?

    I think Joe eszterhas has a lot to do with #4.

    Anyone seen Once Upon a Time in the West recently? We caught the big Leone exhibit at the Autry musuem and then rented that. It has one of the most surreal “Story by” credits I’ve ever seen:

    Story by Sergio Leone, Dario Argento & Frederico Fellini. Yowza.

  2. I think that Arnab may be right that at the heart of the hyper-violent action film lies a nostalgia for the bucolic way of life–my thoughts turn to Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which turns this on its head and thereby proves the rule. Does that make sense? Maybe if I have time later on this afternoon I’ll come back to this.

  3. My mother has a liking for the sub-star action film–those with Van Damme and Seagal–so I’ve watched a number with her. Seagal is always appalling, a bad actor in ludicrous movies. Van Damme is much better and Nowhere to Run is the best of his films (not saying much, but there you go) that I’ve seen, maybe because he’s hardly the uber-macho hero in it. In fact he mostly gets the crap kicked out of him. As for Arquette, a 10 minute frontal nude scene may be the nadir of her career but it is one of the high points of my film-viewing career. And even so, a weird made on video movie called “Diary of a Sex Addict” with dissipated rock “star” Michael Des Barres was her real low point–this film was also the low point of Nastassia Kinski.

  4. Van Damme is much better and Nowhere to Run is the best of his films (not saying much, but there you go) that I’ve seen

    yes, but have you seen death warrant and bloodsport? (the latter actually costars forest whitaker.) you do point to an interesting aspect of van damme’s persona: he is rarely the all-powerful action stud. unlike schwarzenegger or even seagal, who never get bested unless they’re severely outnumbered or there’s treachery/guns involved, van damme often gets the shit kicked out of him, and is not even always the single toughest fighter in his films. in death warrant the “sandman” almost kills him twice (the first time he escapes by shooting him–a rarity for a martial arts star). and in universal soldier he’s constantly running away from dolph lundgren. in fact in nowhere to run he barely bests a cop from cleveland (cleveland, i tell you, not even detroit) whose specialty seems to be not martial arts but card tricks. van damme doesn’t even do quips or bad puns (though there are a few attempts in this film).

    i think i might now need to get the entire back-catalog from netflix. i don’t think i’ve ever actually seen the tsui hark one–in which he is apparently a fashion designer!

  5. Isn’t #5 just a variant on the theme of lone gunman, seeking the quiet life after a violent past, roused to anger and violence in order to defend his (always his) family/adopted family? In order to make the theme work, the flashes of violence have to be contrasted to an idyllic, peaceful (and in the US, that tends to mean rural) existence. ‘Shane’ would be one of the earliest examples I know of, but it has been repeated ad nauseam. I haven’t yet seen ‘History of Violence’ but given the posts here about that movie, it seems to share some elements of this theme.

    Van Damme never quite lived up to his billing as an action hero because of his complete lack of irony (contrast with Willis, Gibson and Schwarzenegger). After the first ‘Kickboxer’ movie, I enjoyed ‘Hard Target’ more than other Van Damme movies, though it had little to do with Van Damme and much more with John Woo trying his hand at a US movie, and the sheer fun that Lance Hendriksen and Arnold Vosloo had as the bad guys.

    Seagal also has no sense of irony, but I would put in a good word for ‘Above the Law’ ‘Hard to Kill’ and the first ‘Under Siege.’ Then he got fat. At least Marlon Brandon didn’t try to be martial arts star after he got fat.

  6. Tsui Hark did two Van Damme movies–Knock Off with Rob Schneider, and Double Team with Dennis Rodman. I enjoyed them both; Hark is wonderfully unconcerned about narrative coherence or bad acting, and there’s cool cinematographic shenanigans aplenty.

    As humorless action heroes go, Van Damme has it all over Seagal (thin-Elvis or fat-Elvis versions), and even over many of the “humorous” grimacing action heroes (like B. Willis, all too often). That said, he still leaves a lot to be desired, that even full frontal from Rosanna Arquette or Rob Schneider can not satiate.

    As far as action goes, I’ll make another plug for the films of Johnny To, particularly anything he made with Andy Lau. Now that actor/hero (or sometimes villain) is as witty and charismatic as Chow Yun Fat (when speaking in Chinese), and To is about the best action director working. (I like Hark, as well, but Hark’s about spectacle at the expense of meaning; To has an uncanny ability to choreograph the style and the semantics of an action sequence. See, e.g., PTU and Cheung Fo/The Mission.)

  7. From an old Michael O’Donoghue column that Spin published in the late 80s /early 90s:

    Okay, how’s this for a plot?–10,000 deranged Sikh extremists rape Steven Seagal’s wife and kill his kids and torch his house and strangle his pets and now it’s payback time! Pretty good, huh? I mean these guys are so militant they burn their own flag, and Seagal has to fuck ’em up! Call it Blood Bunnies Beneath the Wheat (to cash in on that whole Children of the Corn thing). John Woo to direct. Plenty of action and no dialogue except those droll wisecracks Seagal makes, like when he shanks some raghead in the heart and says, “Have a knife day!” or he says, “I sent you a letter last week, but I forgot to stamp it and kick it and shoot it the face!” or he says, “Sikh extremists and you find extremists!” grabs his wogchopper, and opens up. BRAK-AK-AK-AK-AK-AK-AK-AK! VIP! T-ZING! BRAK-AK-AK-AK-AK-AK! Heavy on the red gravy. KA-VLAM! V-LOOOM!

  8. Seagal battling militant Sikhs: brilliant! What a concept. I am so there. It would be hard to match him being sucked out of the stealth plane in ‘Executive Action’ but this sounds even better. One thing, though: Seagal don’t use a gun. Never. Ever. He is a Buddhist. He kills with his hands. And only when provoked.

  9. as part of my ongoing attempt to understand belgium and new orleans i watched hard target tonight. halfway through i realized that i’ve seen the second half a number of times on late night cable. this is quite the piece of crap. it is a wonder john woo managed to recover from this. lance henriksen, however, chews scenery in style. small pleasures. chris, not that this is hugely important but i think nowhere to run is far superior. and not just because of naked rosanna arquette and talk of big belgian penises.

    alas, the van damme festival has to pause before it can get going, since fucking netflix sent me a broken copy of knock off.

  10. I did see ‘Nowhere to run’ a long time ago, but my only memory of it is being astonished at how far Rosanna Arquette had fallen.

    ‘Hard Target’ is clearly not great, but I loved the way John Woo treated van Damme exactly as he would have done Chow Yun-Fat, and it just doesn’t work because van Damme is such a hack. There are lovely moments when he does these slow motion cuts (for example, in the cafe near the beginning) and van Damme just looks like a deer caught in headlights. Where Yun-Fat would slowly unwind with a big grin on his face before a fight, van Damme gets into his ridiculous praying mantis kickboxer pose with what passes for an intense expression and is impossible to take him
    seriously. To clarify: this is why I LIKED ‘Hard Target.’

    By the time he made ‘Broken Arrow’ Woo had learned that there is no American Chow Yun-Fat, and adapted the action accordingly. Christian Slater is spared van Damme’s humiliation.

    In this vein, and in retaliation for Mike’s claim that sleaze is superior, I would put in a good word for Chow Yun-Fat’s American debut, with Mark Wahlberg, ‘The Corruptor.’ It is a superior action flick with a rare sense of gravitas courtesy of Yun-Fat.

  11. i don’t think chow yun-fat would have had any more luck with that permed mullet than van damme did. do you know, i’ve never actually seen the corruptor. must fix this. is mike’s treatise on sleaze worth reading? don’t tell him, but i mostly ignore all his posts–unless someone tips me off that he’s making fun of jeff in them.

  12. JCVD is now available to watch instantly, though it does not release on DVD until next week. It is a real mess that alternately takes itself too seriously and then not seriously enough. The plot has the real Van Damme going through a messy divorce, unable to get any but the worst movie parts and now back in a grimy industrial city in Belgium short on cash. He walks into the middle of a bank robbery, is mistaken by the police for one of the robbers, and it unfolds from there. Large chunks of the movie involve people making fun of Van Damme’s movies, and there is a particular kind of self-loathing from the actor himself. In one extraordinary scene, he levitates out of the bank in the middle of the action and directly addresses the audience about his life and work. It is actually almost touching in its rawness, but it is painful to watch. There are some funny lines, especially related to Steven Seagal’s willingness to cut off his ponytail in order to get a movie part. But the movie is filmed using a dull gold filter of some kind and everyone speaks badly accented English. Very, very odd.

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