In a year that has seen would-be action heroes Jeff Speakman and Brian Bosworth make well-orchestrated attempts to muscle their way into the action-adventure movie arena, Columbia Pictures is clearly betting that Jean-Claude Van Damme could be the next Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal--or even Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Double Impact," the $15-million action film in which Van Damme plays dual roles, opened well Aug. 9 and has grossed $15.3 million and the 30-year-old Belgian karate champion and kickboxer is already shooting his next film, "Universal Soldier," a Carolco project and the first film in a rumored eight-picture deal with Columbia Pictures and Carolco.
Although no one at Columbia will confirm the exact details of the Van Damme deal, Michael Nathanson, Columbia's head of production, says the company has a commitment with Van Damme that "the next three or four or five pictures are going to be directly financed and produced by us." Two more will be produced by Carolco, whose pictures are distributed by Tri-Star, which is owned, like Columbia, by Sony Pictures Entertainment. "Double Impact" was a co-production between Columbia and Michael Douglas' Stone Group.
What makes Van Damme look like an heir apparent as the next karate/kickboxer/bodybuilder hero action? His defenders say it's not merely a matter of muscles. "I think what gives him the possibility of being a huge star (is) you look at Jean-Claude (and see) a guy very much like Arnold. When he flashes that grin. . . ," says Craig Baumgarten, formerly executive vice president of production at 20th Century Fox and now the producer of "Universal Soldier," a $23-million project about a pair of super-soldiers starring Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 29, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 9 Column 6 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong figures--"Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" grossed $6 million in its first week of release in France; "Double Impact" grossed $3 million its first week in France. A story in Calendar on Aug. 20 incorrectly stated that "Double Impact" grossed more than "Robin Hood" in the movies' respective opening weeks in France.
Nathanson agrees. "He has an unbelievable and uncanny ability to be charming, and we're going to take advantage of that."
And, Nathanson adds, "He's already a star. He already has a base of popularity that's remarkable, not only in this country but overseas." Van Damme's string of low-budget films began in 1987 with "Bloodsport" and include "Cyborg," "Death Warrant," "Kickboxer" and "Lionheart." All of them did well overseas; "Double Impact" had a $3-million opening weekend in France, bigger numbers there than "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves."
Today's low-budget action genre has evolved from the simplistic revenge stories of Westerns into categories including war themes ("Rambo"), alien and sci-fi ("Predator," "Terminator"), fantasy ("Masters of the Universe") and martial arts (Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies).
"Sly (Stallone) and Arnold (Schwarzenegger) and on a lesser level (Charles) Bronson made it a contemporary genre," Baumgarten adds. "They made it something that didn't have to be Old Western or science fiction.
"Really, it was 'Rambo,' " Baumgarten says. " 'Rambo' exploded the genre. It created a larger-than-life kind of hero. All of a sudden, in a contemporary arena, you can have this larger-than-life, almost comic book hero. 'Rambo,' I think, did $150 million. Nobody thought you could do that kind of business."
Hollywood caught on quickly; no one, perhaps, more enthusiastically than Menachem Golan's Cannon Pictures, which in the '80s cranked out "Over the Top" with Stallone, "Missing in Action" with Chuck Norris and "Masters of the Universe" with Dolph Lundgren. Norris, and later Seagal, helped bring mainstream audiences to martial arts movies--in droves.
But the formula needs a star to work. What separates the latest hunk from the health club from stardom? "None of us really knows," Baumgarten adds. "Does it happen with Jeff Speakman (whose "Perfect Weapon" has made $14 million so far in this country but is only now opening overseas) and Dolph Lundgren and the rest of them? We're all guessing." Baumgarten, who was at Fox when the studio took a chance on Bruce Willis in "Die Hard," thinks he knows what makes a successful hero: "What made Arnold a huge star is a certain charisma and accessibility," he says. "Men and women are attracted to him and to his movies, and I think that's not true with a lot of these other guys."
But neither Stallone nor Schwarzenegger came up the karate route, which can be limiting for an actor.
"The problem with American martial arts films is that they are still Westerns. It's still 'You have until sunset to get out of town,' " says John Soet, editor of "Inside Karate" and "Action Film," who holds both a double black belt and a master's degree in film from USC.
"In Asia (movies), the hero will fight because he is cornered, he will fight because he has to fight. In films made in the West, it's for revenge. There is a running joke in the (karate) community about which relative will get killed off to kick off (Van Damme's) next film." (In "Double Impact," the Van Damme character's parents are killed at the film's outset.)