Jean-Claude Van Damme acts just as well—if not better—than he fights

Jean-Claude Van Damme acts just as well—if not better—than he fights

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: We recommend five days of action vehicles, each starring a different member of The Expendables.

In Hell (2003)

Minority opinion: Jean-Claude Van Damme is a very good—and possibly great—actor, and the most gifted and nuanced physical performer this side of Denis Lavant. Mind you, Van Damme wasn’t always good; his early performances are pretty-boy stiff. But unlike his contemporaries, whose screen personas eventually calcified into shtick, Van Damme continued developing as an actor. It’s not for nothing that, in The Expendables 2, Van Damme is the only one playing an actual character; everyone else’s role is just a riff on their greatest hits.

Van Damme’s growth as an actor can be ascribed to adventurousness. He’s appeared in a number of weird and heady projects, like the meta-comedy JCVD and John Hyams’ meditative Universal Soldier sequels, and throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he made a point of working with Hong Kong’s top directors. He got John Woo into Hollywood with Hard Target, made two deliriously goofy movies with Tsui Hark (Double Team, Knock Off), and starred in three performance-intensive actioners helmed by Ringo Lam, the onetime hotshot director of Prison On Fire and City On Fire. (The latter is best known to Stateside viewers as a major influence on Reservoir Dogs.)

In Hell is the third and best of the Lam-JCVD collaborations, and a great introduction to Van Damme as an actor, rather than a star. It’s a chewy piece of modern pulp—real dimestore Dostoevsky stuff—in which Van Damme’s Kyle LeBlanc gets sent off to a Russian prison for killing the man who murdered his wife, and there becomes the reigning champion of an illegal high-stakes fighting ring.

Van Damme’s control of his own quirky, stop-start speech rhythms—which he’d use to great effect in JCVD—hadn’t fully come into its own yet. That doesn’t really matter, though, because the role of LeBlanc is almost entirely physical; he starts as a man, is degraded and tormented into becoming an animal, and then kills his tormentor and absorbs his appearance and personality.

Unlike other action stars, Van Damme has long excelled at expressing weakness—yelping, whimpering, using his eyes to register fear or regret. He has an almost unbearably sad face, and it’s possible to chart his development as an actor by measuring the declining frequency of his smiles. (He doesn’t smile once in either of the later Universal Soldier movies.) He is slightly built, with big bags under his eyes, and he’s never looked good holding a gun. He is the most desperate-looking of the classic action stars, and In Hell puts that desperation to great use, using his body to tell the story of a man transforming into the thing he hates and fears most.

Availability: In Hell is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store, or to rent or purchase from the major digital services.

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