Villains have encapsulated some of the most iconic characters in cinema history and have made their presence known in every genre. As time has progressed and cinema has evolved, so too has the villain and the qualities that they possess. The trend has now become that to make a great villain, they need to be very complex and layered and somehow relatable to the audience. To put it simply, a villain is, in a movie, the Yang to a hero/heroine’s Yin, a perfect balance.
The legendary Dolph Lundgren once said that every action movie is only as good as its villain, and that statement couldn’t hold more merit. In my opinion, action movies have by far given us the greatest villains. The most satisfying cinema experience (at least to me) is being exhilarated and dazzled by furious action sequences to then be paid off by seeing these villains get their comeuppance via a good old-fashioned beat down.
What makes action villains so brilliant, as opposed to those from a reality-grounded drama, is that the sky’s the limit. An action film is afforded the luxury of being able to be ludicrous and absurd, and so too can the villain be eccentric, over the top, and larger than life. There’s no doubt that the golden age of action cinema (the 80s and 90s) produced some of the most memorable villains, as well as some of our most beloved heros who have taken them down.
One of the undisputed champions of the 80s and 90s action era needs no introduction, because he’s freaking Jean-Claude Van Damme! Say what you will about him, the man has to be given props for making game-changing action films, and I will be copping some backlash from naysayers for this, but he has matured wonderfully as a serious actor as the years have passed (just watch 2007’s Until Death and the recent 6 Bullets and you’ll see what I mean).
So, in the spirit of both JVCD and some of his most infamous adversaries, I’ve counted down my personal top 10 favourite villains that Jean-Claude Van Damme has had to battle against throughout his illustrious career.Next
10) Polo Yakur (played by Ivan Kaye) – Assassination Games (2011)
Kicking off our countdown is probably one of the most vile villains to ever grace (or disgrace) a Van Damme film. Veteran British actor Ivan Kaye is repulsive and genuine in his portrayal of Polo Yakur, a Russian gangster hell bent on crucifying both Van Damme for the murder of his brother and Scott Adkins to tie up a loose end.
You have to be one hell of a bad ass to be able to face up against two powerhouse martial arts stars, and while Kaye isn’t an action star or martial artist by any stretch (as far as I know), he is very imposing and threatening in every other way. I mean it, this guy makes Alex De Large look like a school boy chump when it comes to dealing out some extreme ultra violence.
To start with, we learn that Scott Adkins’ character has a wee bit of bloodlust for Yakur on account of him facilitating the gang rape of his wife and leaving her permanently comatose. To make matters worse, Adkins’ character was held down and forced to watch the entire ordeal. Then (spoilers alert people), he slowly tortures Adkins’ only ally when attempting to extract his whereabouts and we see the guy lose an ear by way of Stanley knife. He also butchers a woman and leaves her corpse tied up on a bed for Van Damme’s character to find. These are just a few of the heinous acts he indulges in throughout the film, but you get the picture.
Polo Yakur is the whole package, a seemingly well grounded villain of sorts with a complete indifference to human life (aside from his own brother). He managed to really cheese off the two main stars and by the time the movie is 3/4 done, you’re dying for him to have a slow and painful demise, and that’s when you know Ivan Kaye has delivered a very effective performance. A brilliant casting choice and stand-out performance for an unusually drama-focused and underrated Van Damme film.Previous Next
9) Pik van Cleef (played by Arnold Vosloo) – Hard Target (1993)
A GOOD action movie will no doubt have a good main villain, but a GREAT action movie will have two main villains! In John Woo’s Hollywood debut, he pits JCVD’s Chance Boudreaux, a former marine, against a syndicate who hunt homeless vets for sport, led by Lance Henriksen’s Emil Fouchon and our number 9 honouree, Arnold Vosloo’s Pik van Cleef.
Van Cleef basically serves as second in command to Lance Henriksen’s character, but I thought he well and truly deserved a place on this list. Aside from his lack of empathy and complete devoid of any human emotion for that matter, he is a cold and calculating killing machine. He said it himself: “I don’t get angry, I’m a professional.” You get a good couple of glances into his dark soulless eyes courtesy of Woo’s expert close-up camera work, and it serves to be very unsettling. Let me tell you now, it works.
He isn’t menacing in an overt way, but when he flies off the rails, you better believe he flies off the rails. He uses office scissors to cut off an earlobe of one of his associates just to drive a point home, and maybe it was also punishment for being careless in his dealings. And when he and Van Damme finally face off in the film’s final act, it is as epic as you could expect.Previous Next
8) Gabriel Callaghan (played by Stephen Rea) – Until Death (2007)
I saved a spot on this list for this very character, and it’s only because of one scene. Until Death saw JCVD in a very different light, playing heroin addicted cop Anthony Stowe, who is just a real scumbag in general. He rats out his close friends, he cheats on his wife, he’s an insensitive sod and he’d bury his own mother just to get his next fix. In fact, anyone would think he was the villain in this piece. But this is a story of redemption, and Van Damme turns in probably what I consider to be his greatest performance to date.
So, onto the great Stephen Rea. Now, here is an actor who could work with the worst material in the world and make it look like gold. While Until Death was an ambitious and effective film for the most part, it wasn’t without its problems. I could go on to explain them all, but I’ll stick to the main one, and that is that Stephen Rea’s Gabriel Callaghan had very limited screen time.
He pops in and out for literally 5 minutes at a time throughout the film until the final act, which is where he really is able to let loose and chew up some scenery. In a nutshell, Callaghan and Stowe were partners until Callaghan went rogue and became head of a drug cartel. Stowe attempts to put him away when Callaghan gets the drop on him and shoots him in the head, but not before confessing to sleeping with his wife.
Stowe survives the ordeal, recovers, and goes about righting all his wrongs until he comes face to face with Callaghan, who is holding his pregnant wife hostage. It is in this scene where Rea is given ample screen time to show just how much of a sadistic bastard he can be, and his chemistry with Van Damme is spot on. Roughhousing a pregnant woman and being a general sleaze take flight here, but its’ done in such a way that you know the comeuppance is going to be sweet.
This performance was a memorable one for me, mainly because Stephen Rea somehow managed to make it all work in just one scene, and that’s testament to how brilliant he is.Previous Next
7) Sun Quan (played by Simon Yam) – Wake Of Death (2004)
I’ll probably have so many fans disagree with me on this one, but hear me out. Wake Of Death and In Hell both started what I like to call The Van Damme Renaissance. It was a movement in a different direction, one where JCVD began taking quite deep and layered roles in more drama-focused pieces. This particular film saw his character Ben Archer going up against the Hong Kong triads after his wife is mercilessly murdered for taking in a young refugee girl, who just happens to be the daughter of triad boss Sun Quan.
Again, Wake Of Death suffered from a similar problem that Until Death did, and that is not giving the lead villain adequate screen time. While it’s guilty to a lesser extent here, and although I did thoroughly enjoy this film and the noir-ish direction it had, I still couldn’t help but feel short-changed by the end of it. I consider Simon Yam to be the Robert De Niro of Asia. The man can damn well act, and he’s got the action chops to go along with it, but director Phillippe Martinez just didn’t utilize him to his full potential.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t Martinez’s fault. The script did have some great characters that could’ve been more fully realized, and while that may be forgivable to a certain extent for supporting players, you just can’t do that to your leading villain.
For the limited time we do get to see Yam in action, here is what we’re treated with: he murders his wife without so much as batting an eyelid after she reveals that her daughter is in fact his daughter and she’s taking her away from him. The icing on the cake is they had just finished making love, almost like a reverse black-widower. Then he goes on a killing spree by murdering Archer’s wife (and his in-laws for good measure), and also murders (spoiler alert) Archer’s adopted gangster family and kidnaps his son. While Yam doesn’t have all that many lines, a picture is worth a thousand words, and his vicious expressions will send chills down your spine.Previous Next
6) Edward Garrotte/The Torch (played by Jean-Claude Van Damme) – Replicant (2001)
I couldn’t let our man of the hour pass through without his own place on this list. This little gem slipped under the radar upon its release, and I have to say it is one of the most underrated films in Van Damme’s filmography. Replicant marked his second collaboration with renowned action director Ringo Lam after 1996′s Maximum Risk (they would go on to work together once more on 2003′s In Hell), and while JCVD is no stranger to playing dual roles by this point in his career, this was the first time where he played both the hero and the villain.
Van Damme plays a serial killer known as The Torch, who has a penchant for murdering and burning mothers. It’s no secret that he has some unresolved mummy (as they’re known in Australia) issues, but when he leaves behind some DNA at his latest crime scene, a clone (also Van Damme) is made to help capture him, and detective Jake Riley (Michael Rooker) is tasked with looking after the clone and bringing the killer to justice.
The real treat in this film was seeing Van Damme play probably the most sadistic character you’re likely to find in any thriller, as no punches are pulled here. You literally see him commit some horrible things. The film opens with a woman all bloodied up calling 911, and before you know it there he is standing over her, calling her a bad mother, and kicking her head so hard that it breaks her neck. Nasty stuff.
But then to take it just one step further, he sets the apartment on fire and leaves a baby in its cot. He (spoiler alert) also unsurprisingly kills his own mother, but then when her corpse is lying in the morgue, he shoots it multiple times! Talk about holding a grudge. He is severely psychotic and he plays it to a T.
What makes Replicant so great though, is to see this character contrasted with that of the clone, whose personality resembles that of a baby. The clone has to learn everyday living activities from scratch, and is so innocent and naive that you can’t help but feel empathetic to his situation.
I almost chose JCVD’s villainous turn in the awesome The Expendables 2, but I just couldn’t overlook this performance. Van Damme as a serial killer – you have to see it to believe it.Previous Next
5) Emil Fouchon (played by Lance Henriksen) – Hard Target (1993)
When a villain gets fired up and starts to lose their mind, you know the shit is going to hit the fan and it sets an uneasy tone as to how things will play out. On the other hand, when a villain is calm as a cucumber and rarely lashes out, that sends chills down one’s spine that is unmatched. I personally would prefer to take on a villain who’s outspoken as to why they are so angry with the world because then I’d at least know what I’m dealing with. There’s just too much unpredictability with the calm silent type.
The other half of the Hard Target villain alumni is Emil Fouchon, and much like his counterpart Pik Van Cleef, his demeanor is eerily calm and collected. Lance Henriksen has stamped his mark on nearly every film genre, and like Stephen Rea, no matter what material he has to work with, he comes out smelling like a rose each and every time, even if the rest of the film stinks. Hard Target would have to be my personal favourite of Van Damme’s earlier work because it has everything an action fan could ask for, including two very adept and able villains who actually give JCVD a run for his money.
John Woo is a master of his craft, and true to form, he always dedicates much needed attention to his villains, who always are the main driving force of his films. Fouchon doesn’t have many aggressive moments on screen until the final act, but a very pivotal scene in the second act shows the audience everything they need to know about the character. While Van Cleef is briefing a new client on the next hunt, Fouchon is on his piano playing a little bit of Ludwig Van, and the way John Woo plays the scene out is focusing on the intensity in which the musical piece is played. The piece starts out almost serene, and then gradually builds to an intense climax, all the while Lance Henriksen remains mostly expressionless.
To me, and maybe I’m over-analyzing, this illustrated perfectly how mechanical and driven Fouchon is on achieving his goal, and while it was a unorthodox approach to take, it was very effective.Previous Next
4) Senator Aaron McComb (played by Ron Silver) – Timecop (1994)
There have been many films based around the concept of time travel, and they usually have a fifty-fifty chance of turning out great or horrible. Timecop certainly falls into the former category as it evenly divides focus on action, visual effects, character and story, creating a comfortable balance for the audience. Van Damme stars here as Max Walker, a detective who has been recruited for the newly formed TEC agency, whose main objective is to police time travel as the technology has been created and made readily available. This is where our villain, Senator Aaron McComb, comes into the picture. He is an ambitious politician who is running for the presidency and needs to scrape together enough money for his campaign. So, where would one get such funds? Travel back and forth in time and steal it from the past, of course!
What sets Ron Silver’s villain apart from nearly every other villain in JCVD’s films (especially around this era), is that he isn’t physically imposing or an “action guy.” I mentioned earlier in our number 10 spot something similar with Ivan Kaye’s villain, but I believe that this is much different.
In JCVD’s career up to this point, he more often than not had to match his fists and feet to defeat the villains that he came up against. But in Timecop, Ron Silver challenges our hero intellectually, which steers the film into a battle of wits rather than brawn.
Silver plays his part with pure expertise, as he is simply playing a politician, which is villain enough for anyone. He’s looking to cheat the system to gain absolute power, and doesn’t care who dies in the process. But he portrays it so well and injects ample amount of charisma and charm to make his Senator McComb very intriguing and, dare I say, somewhat likable at times.
But make no mistake, McComb is downright ruthless, and it was a welcome change to see JCVD come up against a different kind of villain that we’re all not used to seeing in his films. Sadly, Ron Silver passed away in 2009, but he left behind a legacy of work that any master of the craft would be proud to call their own.
Kudos to you Mr Silver, you are missed by many around the world.Previous Next
3) Tong Po (played by Michel Qissi) – Kickboxer (1989)
Only three spots away from the top, and I introduce one of the most iconic villains in action cinema history. The name Tong Po struck fear in the souls of every young action film junkie (including myself) and there was a very good reason for it. The very first time we get a glimpse of our villain, our hero JCVD is walking down a hall carrying an ice bucket for his brother who is about to fight Po, and he hears loud thudding. Curious, he moves closer to the sound and the camera pans to show a man kicking a pillar with his bare shins and causing the plaster to crumble. That would’ve been enough to send me running to the nearest airport and catching a one way flight to anywhere that wasn’t where Tong Po was! But alas, if our hero ran, we wouldn’t have been able to bare witness the savageness that is this beast.
Not much more needs to be said about Tong Po. He is the single most dangerous unarmed human being and can crush cement if given the opportunity. His fierce but calm eyes, his destructive Muay Thai techniques, his willingness to play dirty, it all comes to a head when he and JCVD finally face off with their fists bound in rope and dipped in broken glass. If you ask me, there’s no more badass way to have a showdown, and without spoiling anything for those who haven’t seen it, it delivers in spades.Previous Next
2. Chong Li (played by Bolo Yeung) – Bloodsport (1988)
Here it is, the film that put Van Damme on the international map. His very first starring role saw him playing real life martial artist Frank Dux and following him on his journey to competing in the underground tournament known as The Kumite. And like his second biggest film of the 80s, Kickboxer, Bloodsport was graced with another one of action cinema’s most iconic villains.
He is known in martial arts circles throughout the world and he even appeared in Enter The Dragon alongside Bruce Lee. He often plays the role of the villain and fits the role perfectly with his incredibly muscular figure. Bolo Yeung was the perfect casting choice to match up against JCVD, he was so perfect in fact that they went for round 2 in 1991’s Double Impact. I nearly chose Yeung’s role in Double Impact over this (mainly due to his false eye and monstrous facial scar), but you just can’t go past his role of Chong Li.
As we see the tournament progress, Chong Li goes through opponents like a squirrel goes through acorns. Chong Li is the best, and he knows it. He struts around with an air of arrogance and ferocity, and he feeds off the crowd’s bloodlust. He is a tactician in how he defeats his opponents, mainly choosing to use very disabling moves so that they go down like a sack of potatoes, permanently.
One fight shows Chong going up against a Muay Thai fighter (played ironically by Michel Qissi), and he is delivering an array of awesome kicks. Then Chong decides he’s had enough, so he gets the upper hand, and while it could’ve very well been left at that, he stomps on Qissi’s shin so hard that the bone protrudes out of the skin.
I’ve always loved Bolo Yeung, he’s been in some great martial arts movies that I have admired from when I was really young. Many of them are relatively unknown, but he always had such a presence that elevated any film well above what it was meant to be.Previous Next
1) Sergeant Andrew Scott/GR13 (played by Dolph Lundgren) – Universal Soldier (1992)
We’ve reached the top spot, and I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of the title. By the time Universal Soldier graced our screens back in 1992, both Jean-Claude Van Damme and the ever so awesome Dolph Lundgren were at the absolute top of their game, and bless the producers for thinking of pitting them against each other for this spectacle of a movie. The top spot of most awesome villain in a Van Damme film can’t go very lightly and without exceptional reasons, but Dolph Lundgren’s most recognized and beloved character of Sergeant Andrew Scott/GR13 more than lives up to the revered title.
The story goes that JCVD plays soldier Luc Deveraux, who is fighting in Vietnam and Dolph is his commanding officer. Scott loses his marbles due to far too much traumatic stress, kills majority of his platoon and then turns on Deveraux when he tries to stop him from executing innocent prisoners. They kill each other and are subsequently re-animated by an off-the-book government program with no memory of their past lives. Of course, their memories start to get jogged once the first act comes to a close and then it’s on like Donkey Kong!
Dolph reprised this role in the two direct sequels, Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning, and hasn’t lost a step in the twenty years that this franchise has spanned over.
Scott is deranged in a very wacky way, and while he is played with just the right amount of camp, he does have moments of pure terror as well. He is physically jacked to the max and provides a very formidable challenge for JCVD. Many memorable moments and dialogue are littered throughout the film, and had Dolph not been cast as the lead villain, Universal Soldier would have suffered greatly. And that’s exactly why he belongs on the top of the list, because Scott is one of the most larger than life villains ever created for an action film, and he is right at home in one of the pinnacles of 90s action cinema!
So, there you have it, we’ve reached the end. Tell us, though, who were your favorite villains that Jean-Claude Van Damme had to go up against? Did we miss anyone here? Sound off below!Previous