He Ain't Heavy, He's My Separated-at-Infancy-but-Equally-Limber Identical Twin Brother: Reflections, 20 years on, on the twofold, um, legacy of Double Impact
My friend the noted film critic Ian Buckwalter shows movies on the roof of his building in the summertime. These are not, for the most part, bad movies, but they are perhaps misunderstood. What they share is a very particular aesthetic; one we're still struggling to define, but Reaganomics doesn't quite cover it. I think Ian will agree with me when I say that selecting films for Cinema sur le Toit calls to mind what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography: "I really, really enjoy it." Anyway, I was campaigning hard for Double Impact to make the list this year. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that was the first -- not the only, bizarrely! -- joint in which Jean-Claude Van Damme appeared as identical twin brothers. Here is the unabridged text of my keynote address from last night's screening. I regret only that I didn't practice pronouncing australopithecine ahead of time. Trying to seat-of-my-pants that shit was flying too close to the sun. That was arrogance, my friends. That was folly.
Astronomer and 7th-degree Jeet Kune Do black belt Carl Sagan once observed that the biological diversity of life on Earth is so incomprehensibly rich, it’s almost retarded.
From the first tentative appearance, some 4,500 maya ago – a maya of course representing one million years -- of single-celled organisms, simple plants and invertebrates, algae, bacteria, flagellates; to the startling R&D breakthroughs of the Paleozoic Era -- your trilobites, your brachiopods, nautilods, and even some early, undersalted-and-not-yet-delicious crustaceans. And down, down, down, descending through the thousand upon thousands of unremarked centuries to the unforeseeable diversification of mammals in Paleocene epoch of the Cenozoic Era. Large, sophisticated terrestrial mammals: monkeys, horses. And the mighty whales, those noble, somber elephants of the sea!
From there it’s a breathless sprint the Oligosocene era and the Milocene period, when the first hominids appear, speedily ceding God’s stage to the Australopithecines, less than two millions years distant now, when these increasingly glabrous, increasingly arrogant beasts begin into resolve into something that could give you a relatively guilt-free boner.
And on to 1988, by which time the very exceptional among these once-primitive creatures could easily leap up to do a lateral split across two chairs to dodge gunfire. Why leap up into a lateral split across two chairs when one could simply duck, or run out of the room? Theologians and 45-year-old video clerks will continue to foot-jab and kidney-punch this existential riddle long after you and I are but so much dust. The only answer can be: Because it is there. Also, because leaving a room, well, jeez: James McAvoy could do that shit.
Jean-Claude Camile Francois Van Varenberg was born in Brussels on the 18th day of the tenth month of the year one thousand nine hundred sixty A.D. He felled the attending physician with a reverse roundhouse flying spin kick, began training in karate at 10 and ballet at 16, but nevertheless chose to retire from professional martial arts competition at the age of 21, having compiled a record of 20 wins, all by knockout, and two losses, both by decision.*
By then it was 1982, the year E.T. phoned home. And and the man who’d soon change his handle to Van Damme had his of-the-tiger eye -- and also his other eye; BOTH eyes -- set firmly on the Octagon of Hollywood.
His first job was in the 1984 film Breakin’. From there he boarded the lurchy, vaguely-urine-smelling cargo elevator to quasi-stardom, appearing in some scenes as the titular creature in John McTiernan’s PREDATOR (an official selection of Cinema sur le Toit 2010) before being replaced by Kevin Peter Hall, who also played the title role in Harry of the Hendersons.
Undettered by Kevin Peter Hall’s frankly revolting spotlight-hoggery, the once and future Muscles from Brussels continued to hone his craft, improving the elasticity of his groin and the tensile strength of his gleaming haunches with each passing day. In a time when critically lauded, lucrative films had titles like Beaches and Driving Miss Daisy, Van Damme’s early films delivered exactly what their terse monikers portended: Bloodsport. Kickboxer. Cyborg.
And then, in 1991, one of the greatest years in the history of cinema as far as I’m concerned, that little Belgian ballerina that could crashed the A-list.
]t was August. The release of Terminator 2 -- a film for which James Cameron had considered but quickly rejected the lead-actor-in-dual-roles-tip*** that provided Double Impact’s entire premise -- was already a month in the past; the start of sophomore year a month in the future. On the Friday morning of release, I eagerly read both reviews of the film that appeared in the paper of record, The Washington Post, and I have to say that even though 15 years after he filed this, Desson Howe would become a friend of mine when we took a class together, in the Post review-off, he was roundly outmatched by Richard Harrington, whom I know more for his music writing.
Anyway, I've severely abridged both reviews for your time-saving enjoyment. Here's Desson's first:
What’s worse than a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie? Two Jean-Claude movies. What’s worse than that? One movie with two Jean-Claudes... Maybe you haven’t heard of the Claudester. We’re talking a short, power-built Belgian whose flemish accented acting is one reason not to have a free-market economy... They should have called this Negative Impact.
Desson, you know I love you, but that is hacky. Harrington, meanwhile, brings the hurt:
With apologies to Cole Porter, it’s obvious that Jean-Claude Van Damme gets a kick out of himself... Call it Twin Pique, and excuse the chief bad guy when he finally figures out why he’s seeing double: By then he’s just a little punch-drunk.
Van Damme is clearly no Jeremy Irons ****but then Irons probably couldn’t bust heads with such panache. And unlike most of his competitors, Van Damme has a healthy interest in women.
Ohhhh, BURN! But he ain't wrong: A guy I went to UCLA with who A.D.-ed a Van Damme joint said he had his mistress picked up at the airport by the same car that had just dropped off his wife. Van Damme has been married five times, by the way, twice to body builder Grace Portugese, star of Pumping Iron II: The Women.*** She joins him the just-aired Jean-Claude Van Damme: Behind Closed Doors, a British reality show that depicts him training, at age 50, for a comeback not at the movies, but in the ring! So if any of you have a cable or satellite package that gets IT4, I will cancel any plans I have for the rest of my life and watch the shit out of that shit.
Anyway, Double Impact was the 45th highest-grossing film of 1991. On the all-time U.S. box office chart, it sits comfortably at position 1,996 -- with a bullet, baby!
But enough commerce; I submit to you that Double Impact’s twofold… legacy is primarily aesthetic. When it came to the preemininet arbiters of taste at the late 20th century cinema, Siskel and Ebert, they awarded Double Impact the coveted Two Thumbs Up.**** Two opposable thumbs: A verdict any hominid can get behind! Ladies and gentlemen, un filme de Jean-Claude Camile Francois Van Varenberg, Double Impact.
**TOTALLY factual. I would not make up shit about Terminator 2.
***An actor who would finally find fame a few years later for his role in John McTiernan's Die Hard with a Vengeance.
*****I was very careful to avoid checking this because it would ruin my closing if it turned out to have been completely false. But Ebert gave the flick two out of four starts in the Chicago Tribune, so it's looking kind of iffy.