Jean-Claude Van Damme is back.
His heyday of the 90s far behind him, the former “Muscles from Brussels,” Bloodsport kickboxer, and mulleted action star with the odd forehead lump recently began popping up in GoDaddy commercials, beating bongos and shaking maracas while doing the splits, leering at small business owners and yet inspiring them with a husky “It’s go time.” At the American Film Market trade show last week, his not-yet-released action flick Swelter scored pretty big, selling in multiple territories around the world. But what has really propelled him back into the public eye is his extraordinary, commanding appearance in an epic new Volvo commercial.
Unlike the whimsical, frenetic GoDaddy ads, the Volvo spot has a tranquil, ethereal beauty about it. It features Van Damme staring impassively at the camera with the focus of a Zen master, while the two semis beneath his feat carry him backwards, ever so carefully and precisely diverging – in reverse – until his split legs are parallel to the highway streaming underneath. Not bad for a 53-year-old. Van Damme and the trucks continue into the sunrise to the accompaniment of Enya’s lush “Only Time.” Meanwhile his voiceover proclaims in his famous accent, “I’ve had my ups and downs, my fair share of bumpy roads and heavy winds.” Indeed he has. “That’s what made me what I am today.”
What he is today is a survivor – of poverty, bipolar disorder, drug addiction, and fame – and one of Hollywood’s most unique personalities. Obsessed with stardom, the young martial artist hit Los Angeles in 1982 and struggled through a period of homelessness looking for his big break, which came six long years later in Bloodsport. The superfit actor was at the top through the early 90s until his films gradually declined at the box office, and Van Damme himself declined emotionally and physically. At one point he was blowing through $10,000 a week on cocaine.
“It became a point where I wanted to die. I didn't have any reasons to live,” he confessed. “Then you have to find back your self-esteem. And then, slowly, every piece of yourself becomes precious again... It’s not the drugs. It’s a problem with yourself, which you have to cure.”
And so Van Damme worked his way back to personal and professional respect. For those who don’t take him seriously as an actor, check out his stunning turn in JCVD from 2008, in which he plays himself as a down-on-his-luck actor: broke, unable to get work, embroiled in a custody battle for his daughter, and suddenly at the center of a hostage situation in his hometown Brussels.
At one point in this underappreciated drama, Van Damme and the camera rise above the set, and he addresses the viewer directly in a riveting, emotional, six-minute monologue* in which he rambles about his fame, numerous marriages (five times to four different women), and drug abuse. It is nakedly personal, compelling, and honest, and it garnered him newfound and hard-earned respect. Time rated his performance the second best of the year, after Heath Ledger’s unforgettable Joker in The Dark Knight. Not bad for a down-and-out former action star everyone had written off.