Leafing through the current edition of the 180° programme guide, it looks like something has gotten in the water at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Following a spectacular summer of retrospectives that included the work of Satyajit Ray, Robert Lepage, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the first of a two-part Godard series, the good folks at TIFF are indulging in a little counter programming for fall. So far, we’ve seen a Wes Craven retrospective in time for Halloween—so happy to see Swamp Thing wasn’t forgotten. Back to the ‘90s is a series that includes all the movies your sister loved in high school. Remember that old chestnut Empire Records? But, it’s the focus of the inaugural Versus series that shows TIFF has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek for fall. In what is promised to be a recurring programme, two movie giants are pitted against each other in a film-for-film battle as critics Calum Marsh and Andrew Parker weigh in, and audiences vote on which one will rules supreme. So which A-listers has TIFF chosen for its first silver screen skirmish? Howard Hawks and John Ford? Nope. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen? One can only wish. Nope. On the card for this fight are none other than “The Muscles from Brussels,” Jean-Claude Van Damme versus Steven Seagal: Lawman.
Looking at both these guys today, in the wake of their respective [down]turns in reality TV, it may be a little hard to remember just how big they were in their time. While Schwarzenegger and Stallone were always kings of the action mountain, 25 years ago, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal were solid B-listers whose films sated our appetites for blood and destruction in-between the tent pole pictures of the bigger stars. Of course, this was a different time—in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, cheapo action flicks had a spot in the popular critical discourse of the day. It was not unusual for Siskel and Ebert to review the latest shoot’em up from Cannon Films, so it was possible for a low-budget action star to become a household name. And, of course, as Seagal and Van Damme’s stars rose in tandem, the inevitable ‘who would win in a fight?’ debate dominated many a school yard. However, that’s not the question at hand in TIFF’s new VERSUS series. If the question was simply, ‘who would win in a fight?’, we all know the answer to that… But, this is serious film criticism, so the question must be: who has the greater body of work? Let’s break this down.
It’s clear that Jean-Claude Van Damme was destined to become an action star. The story of how he got started in the film business reads like someone collated the biographies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris. By the time he came to America, Van Damme was not only Mr. Belgium, but held a black belt in Karate and was a professional Kickboxer. His success appears to be the result of pure determination to break into the movies. In the recent documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, it’s said that Van Damme used to sit in reception at the Cannon offices every day, introducing himself to execs and giving demonstrations of his martial arts skills, until those same execs gave him work. And, like Schwarzenegger, he was able to not just eke out a living, but dominate the film world despite his tenuous grasp of English that undercut most of the All-American characters he portrayed.
Van Damme’s first big break came in 1988 with the release of the fighting tournament film Bloodsport—also the first film to be screened as part of the Versus series. A thin scenario, peppered with memorable villains that fill the spaces in-between martial arts demonstrations, Bloodsport is the prototypical Van Damme vehicle, and a movie he seemingly remade over and over in his early career with the likes of Kickboxer and Lionheart. But as he gained popularity, the budgets and quality of his movies appeared to improve. TIFF will also screen Hard Target, director John Woo’s 1993 entry into Hollywood filmmaking—a riff on Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game”—and Universal Soldier. For this futuristic action film, Van Damme was paired with another second-tier star, Dolph Lundgren, playing enemy super soldiers. Capping off the JCVD programming is… well, JCVD. the meta-opus that saw Van Damme play himself, a washed up action star. JCVD also holds the distinction of being the first film in which audiences saw that he actually has acting chops.
In contrast to Van Damme, Steven Seagal seems to have been handed his career. He holds a 7th degree black belt in Aikido, and spent his early career as an instructor. Seagal counted Hollywood super agent Michael Ovitz among his students in the mid-80s. It was Ovitz who brought him to Warner Brothers and secured a deal to make his first film, Above the Law (1987), which is among the titles to be featured in the Versus series. When Seagal hit the scene, he was unusual for action stars—slightly balding with a ponytail, he had a face reminiscent of young Marlon Brando. Moreover, he had an understated, naturalistic delivery like Brando, only it was old Brando—the Brando who didn’t know his lines and required his fellow actors to wear cue cards on their bodies. Above the Law can be counted among the handful of Death Wish rip-offs Seagal recycled throughout his early career. Also included in that group are Hard to Kill and Out for Justice, which too will be screened as part of TIFF’s programming, while Marked for Death remains where it belongs in the $5 DVD bin. All of these early Seagal films feature interchangeable titles and forgettable scenarios that involve his character avenging one murder or another.
Really, the best film made and slated to screen from Seagal is the 1992 blockbuster Under Siege. In this film, which could be retitled Die Hard on a Boat, Seagal stars as former Navy Seal turned ship’s cook who must take down a group of mercenaries led by Tommy Lee Jones, before they can launch two nuclear missiles at Honolulu. For this picture Seagal reteamed with his Above the Law director Andrew Davis, who would go on to direct Tommy Lee Jones in his Oscar-winning turn in The Fugitive. Seagal never made a movie that better showcased his abilities as an action star. However, it still has to be noted that Aikido is not the most cinematic of the martial arts—to a layman, it looks like he’s embroiled in repeated slapfights with his enemies.
So who will rise and who will fall this January as the votes are tallied on TIFF’s inaugural Versus series? Vegas bookies have Van Damme to win 3-1. Comparing the four films chosen to represent his body of work, we see that Van Damme took risks throughout his career with high concept scenarios—again, something he shares with Schwarzenegger. This, of course, is only made more apparent when we consider Timecop, Double Impact, and The Quest . Sure, Cyborg never reached the heights of The Terminator, but JCVD was heads-and-tails above the self-reflexive Last Action Hero. Meanwhile, Seagal was happy to remake the same film over and over. It speaks volumes that the four Seagal films programmed as part of the TIFF schedule represent four out of the first five he made, indicating a steep decline in quality, and even watchability.
Van Damme takes it.
For complete programme details go to the TIFF website.