Monday, April 04, 2011


For American males who came of age at just the right moment in the late 1980s / early 1990s, there is a crucial question that must be answered: Seagal or Van Damme? For years, my best friend and I have argued the pros and cons. I always side with Seagal; he always chooses Van Damme. It’s just a matter of personal taste, I suppose, but I prefer Seagal’s fluid, seemingly effortless fighting style to Van Damme’s muscle-flexing bravado. Also, I really like the raw energy and grittiness of Seagal’s best movies, ABOVE THE LAW and OUT FOR JUSTICE. I will suggest, however, that Van Damme movies may be slightly more watchable overall – especially in the DTV era. (BEN: I’m not conceding this point… I’m only saying that the matter warrants further investigation.)

Here’s a theory: As Vern’s exceptional book SEAGALOGY illustrates, Steven Seagal has become the auteur of all of his films since ON DEADLY GROUND (1996). If you don’t like the Seagal persona, you probably won’t like his movies. That’s not necessarily true of Van Damme movies, thanks to a relatively high caliber of directors (John Woo, Peter Hyams, Ringo Lam, Hark Tsui and John Avildson) and co-stars (Lance Henriksen, Raul Julia, Powers Booth, Charlton Heston, Michael Rooker).

Exhibit A: HARD TARGET. Even if you don’t like Van Damme, there are still five solid reasons to love this movie….

I grew up in a rural town in Virginia, where there wasn’t much to do except watch movies. Mercifully, there were three local video stores. One of them seemed to specialize in action and grindhouse movies. That’s where I picked up John Woo’s THE KILLER for the first time. That was the movie that introduced me to the concept of “balletic violence.” I’d seen plenty of adrenaline-charged action movies, but never one so beautiful. I liked it so much that I special ordered HARD BOILED, which remains my favorite John Woo movie. HARD TARGET was Woo’s next film and his American debut. Possibly his English wasn’t good enough for him to recognize Van Damme’s weaknesses as an actor (to say nothing of Yancy Butler), but there’s no question that he knows how to turn Van Damme’s lightning fast roundhouse kicks into fine art.

Every good action hero needs a good villain… and you can’t do much better than Lance Henriksen’s big game hunter Emil Fouchon. If you don’t think it’s possible for a man to ooze violence, you’ve never seen this movie. Emil Fouchon is the type of guy who holds a gun like a pool cue... Death is just a game to him. Even when Fouchon is doing something as simple as playing the piano, there is discernible rage behind Henriksen’s eyes. (One reviewer noted that he "pounds out Beethoven as if ripping fingernails from a thousand screamers.") He doesn’t lose his cool until his nemesis literally sets him on fire… and that self-restraint makes him much more powerful than any screaming tyrant could ever be.

Every good villain needs a good henchman, and Vosloo’s Pik Van Cleef (named for actor Lee Van Cleef… which adds to his coolness factor) fits the bill. He reminds me a little bit of Martin Landau in Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST, who’s just a little too loyal to boss James Mason. Pik Van Cleef obviously has some personal issues to work out, because he’s utterly gleeful about killing innocent people. Compared to Henriksen’s smoldering intensity, Vosloo is like a kid in a candy shop… A really mean kid who steals Pop Rocks and soda and uses them to blow up his dog.

Sometime after I first saw HARD TARGET, I read a review that said it was based on a 1932 horror movie called THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. So I have John Woo to thank for the fact that I’ve seen THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. Of course, I also have him to blame for the fact that I’ve seen SURVIVING THE GAME – which is basically the same movie with Ice-T running and Gary Busey hunting. Unfortunately, it wasn’t made in Nawlins by John Woo.

For weeks after we saw HARD TARGET that first time, my best friend and I routinely quoted this movie at not-particularly-opportune moments, always with accents. (I told you there wasn’t much to do in my hometown…) A few personal favorites:

Arnold Vosloo: “Randal, Randal, Randal. I know you didn't mean to... hurt... my feelings.”

Lance Henriksen: “You… are a fucking buffalo!”

Van Damme, when asked why he’s called Chance: “My mama… took one.”

HARD TARGET is truly one of life’s simple pleasures. Now that I’m warmed up, let’s talk about OUT FOR JUSTICE…


  1. Yep, you make good points about this one, Joe. Woo definitely wasn't treated with much respect in delivering the film he wanted to make. And of course, Lance Henriksen saves this film the for me with his performance. I'll fast forward through to his parts whenever I have the director's cut in the player.

    But, as bad as an actor (and maybe person) that Steven Seagal is, I still rather watch him compared with JCVD. IMO, you always get the feeling with Van Damme is more of a dancer than martial arts badass -- Seagal, on the other hand, really is an accomplish Aikido practitioner (one of his Japanese students... he gets tossed about pretty well at the start of ABOVE THE LAW in the preamble flashback) was my kids sensei. He just needs to leave the wire-fu alone ;-).

    Thanks, Joe.

    p.s., now if only Kurt Russell had been allowed to play Boudreax as first considered, then we'd have had something!

    1. you trully stupid, who has no idea about fighting,either of them is not true martial artist, but at least Van Damme in young days competed in full contact fights, who the fuck is steven seagal?you call him martial artist because he has certificate that says he is martial artist?show me single video that seagal fighting someone?that fake fat fuck only can beat woman, van damme was physically strong and experienced then that fat fuck seagal.

  2. Kurt Russell as Boudreaux....


    I just went to movie geek heaven for a minute there...

  3. Early Seagal films had IMO the best fight choreography. You could tell he had to use his trained students because regular stunt men would have been seriously hurt. For me, those early Seagal films made JCVD, Stallone, and Arnold fight scenes look really mundane. JCVD at least had his flashy style and great form but there was something striking about Seagal's brutal action sequences. If Seagal hadn't let himself go an didn't allow his personal beliefs to filter so heavily into his projects (On Deadly Ground, Fire Down Below, Glimmer Man, Patriot) I think he would have been the one pure action hero with the action skills to stick around past the action movie fallout of the late 90s and 2000s with just his basic formula heavily relying on the strength of his fight and action choreography.