How The Expendables 2 Made Jean-Claude Van Damme Learn How To Love Film Again

At some point in his career, Jean-Claude Van Damme entered a curious state of constantly fighting his way back into the limelight. Van Damme burst onto the film scene in 1988 with the release of Newt Arnold's fight film "Bloodsport," and became one of the more notable action stars of the 1990s, appearing in "Kickboxer," Roland Emmerich's "Universal Soldier," John Woo's "Hard Target," sand titles such as "Timecop" and "Street Fighter." By the end of the 1990s, however, Van Damme's films seem to have fallen out of favor, and the Muscles from Brussels entered something of a fallow period that he seems to be lifting himself out of on a daily basis. It wouldn't be until 2008 that the release of "JCVD" — a film in which Van Damme played himself — would invite audiences to see the actor as skilled and vulnerable, having honed his craft over his career. 

Since then, Van Damme has made several self-aware projects in the spirit of "JCVD," wherein he could display his still-ample physical prowess while knowingly acknowledging his own place in the pop culture firmament (highly recommended: the 2016 Amazon series "Jean-Claude Van Johnson"). It was during Van Damme's late constant-reinvention period that Sylvester Stallone would begin making the "Expendables" movies. "The Expendables" (2010), directed by Stallone, was barely a movie, strung together by its gimmick: An enormous cast of recognizable action stars from a previous generation. Stallone starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Let Li, Dolph Lundgren, Gary Daniels, Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham, and others. The characters were a team of super-capable mercenaries and they did mercenary stuff. 

Creative and crazier

For Simon West's "The Expendables 2" (2012), the cast was expanded to include Chuck Norris and, as the film's villain, Van Damme. It was finally being cast as a heavy that allowed Van Damme to finally feel like he can stretch as an actor. Additionally, like all action stars, Van Damme was frequently asked to play roles that only required him to be stoic and capable. In playing a villain, he was finally able to chew some scenery, something he was rarely asked to do. He explained his feelings about "Expendables" in the fitness magazine Coach in 2012: 

"It was a welcome change. A bad guy gave me the opportunity to push the envelope more in terms of being creative and to be crazier. Such a big film allowed me to show more acting, like in 'JCVD.' I was trying to create a non-comical, more serious villain that could be believable. For me it was about being as real as possible. Sly liked that because he takes his work so seriously."

Van Damme admits that he wasn't in the top physical shape that he would have liked when asked to star in "Expendables 2." And while it's easy to imagine that Van Damme's "out of shape" is likely far fitter than most of us will ever be, the film still required him to be as bulky and as muscular as possible to stay in line with the ultra-muscled aesthetic of the 1980s action pictures "The Expendables" movies were meant to emulate. 

Fighting shape

Because Van Damme was on the road so much, and because he was 50, he had fallen off of a regular fitness regimen, and Stallone insisted that he begin powering up immediately. 

"When I came on the set, I am sad to say, I was not in shape. At the time I was travelling so much, which was very hard for me. But I did start to train right away because Sly basically said to me to build muscle and have arms, like, the size of trains." 

Coach goes on to describe how Van Damme got back in shape, which was not just a way to get into fighting shape for the actor, but also a way to get back into character. He would have 45-minute cardio sessions and a lot of powerlifting ... doing more reps on lighter weights, rather than fewer with gigantic ones; it was easier on his body. Van Damme also got to re-employ a specific form of what he calls isometric training that he used 15 years earlier during his cinematic heyday: 

"You can do this any place in the world with some very specific movements. It's the best training in the world. You can do it before you brush your teeth in morning and before you go to bed at night. You raise your heartbeat with no equipment needed. I do this anywhere – even if I am speaking to someone I'll do some training. It becomes natural."

Getting into shape also entailed eating right, working on flexibility, and learning to fight with Stallone as well. Stallone, it turns out, likes to actually make contact when he fights on camera.

Making contact

Why actually hit people? It looks real. 

"Sly weighed 99 kg [about 218 lbs.] for this film. He was going for it during the fight scenes too. I'm not saying he was throwing real shots, but he likes to make contact so everything looks real."

Playing a heavy,  getting back into shape, and learning to fight again brought Van Damme out of a decade-long funk, and the activity led to an increased work output on other films. He picked up work on some other films that he had been working on for some time, and even had lined up an Olympic-level Muy Thai Somluk Kamsing which he would fight in December of 2012. 

"I respect all forms of film. Now I feel that I am back. Because of 'The Expendables 2' I learned how to love film again."

And, seriously, watch "Jean-Claude Van Johnson." It's truly an excellent meta-commentary on fame and displays that Van Damme really did bother to become a much better actor over the years. It's worth it just for the muscled-up version of Huck Finn.