Strap in, lock and load, get ready for action. The Danger Zone is an ongoing column that looks at some of the most exciting and interesting topics in the action genre. This entry focuses on the Jean Claude Van Damme movie Double Impact.
Jean-Claude Van Damme is arguably the most fascinating performer to emerge from the golden age of American action movies. Because he has always been keen to grow as an actor. Usually, it’s within the parameters of the action fare he’s known for, but he’s also done some flicks that showcase unique sides to his arsenal. The meta-fictional JCVD and John Hyams’ gloomy Universal Soldier sequels are great examples of movies where he completely shattered expectations. His upcoming spy-comedy The Last Mercenary also appears to be a fresh challenge for the Belgian legend.
Van Damme is at his best when he’s operating within a happy medium combining experimentation with his established spin-kicking niche. He adopted this best of both worlds mentality beginning with 1991’s Double Impact. The “Muscles from Brussels” was drawn to the project because he was craving change at the time. This was an attempt to break free from being typecast. Yet, the film is still a glorious slice of Van Damage that delivers the goods.
In the early ’90s, Van Damme was the undisputed king of martial arts cinema in the West following the release of Kickboxer and Bloodsport. But he had ambitions to become a mainstream star in more non-action pictures as well. Double Impact, in which he plays twins, was his chance to show that he was capable of versatility. Maybe it didn’t lead to him escaping the genre in the grand scheme of things, but his performances are top-notch and he gets to showcase a variety of flavors.
Van Damme was so focused on making the most of this project that he even co-wrote the script. The film was originally supposed to be an adaptation of The Corsican Brothers by Alexandre Dumas, but Van Damme and Sheldon Lettich only kept the twin element and proceeded to build a story around the actor’s strengths and desires. It was Van Damme’s decision to rename it Double Impact. The final product is very much a film that lives up to the name.
The dual roles allow the actor to play both a mean-spirited bastard and a funnyman. The twin brothers are different sides of the same coin. Yin and yang. Alex is an asshole who was raised on the streets of Hong Kong. He chomps cigars, gambles, and treats people like shit. Chad is a sensitive lothario who teaches karate to Valley girls in Los Angeles. When their paths cross and they’re forced to team up to thwart a common evil in Hong Kong, they still struggle to get along. The desire to avenge the death of their parents keeps them on track, though, and they use their combined talents to defeat a rogues gallery of tough villains on the way to the top boss.
Let’s not pretend that Double Impact is some masterpiece that was ever going to take Van Damme to the Oscars. The movie is a fast-moving action-adventure that features the gunplay, fights, chases, and bloodshed that people expect from a Van Damme flick. That’s what makes it so freaking awesome. There’s also a sex scene that was thrown in to reveal the romantic and sultry side of the actor. He hoped it’d convince Hollywood to offer him more mainstream gigs. Interestingly, this very scene almost led to Oliver Stone casting him in Alexander.
Regardless of Van Damme having his cake and eating it, Double Impact was a bold move for the star at the time. It didn’t redefine his persona, but it’s an impressive outing for the martial artist nonetheless. He delivers two distinct performances that complement each other very well. The characters share the screen together for the majority of the film’s runtime, and it’s easy to suspend disbelief and buy into the twin shtick. That’s an achievement in and of itself, and Van Damme gives both parts his all.
It’s one thing to play two different characters with their own quirks. Doing so in a way that comes across as natural interactions is even more difficult. This is especially true in the scene where Alex and Chad get into a scrap with each other over their mutual love interest. The showdown — created through a combination of doubles, motion control camera work, frame splicing, and theatrical lighting techniques — offers some great emotional storytelling. It also boasts the novelty of Van Damme beating himself up.
Van Damme infuses Alex with pure hateful savagery and toxic masculinity. His turn as Chad, on the other hand, is more complicated. He’s evidently terrified of his abusive sibling, but he still musters up the courage to stand his ground. The scene is also proof that Van Damme had decent acting chops back in 1991, so throw all of those “he’s a bad actor” takes out the door. Jean-Claude Van Damme is a great actor!
For the most part, Double Impact is lighthearted entertainment. The central strange bedfellows dynamic provides several moments of comedy, and both roles allow Van Damme to chew the scenery to the max. He isn’t afraid to be goofy either, as is evident in the scene where Chad sports silk underwear. All in all, Double Impact is a Van Damme highlight reel. But it’s really the first movie that showcased his hunger to evolve and take his career to the next level.
The actor relished the challenge of playing dual roles so much that he accepted similar parts later on. Maximum Risk and Replicant also feature two Van Dammes for the price of one, and each movie sees him try something a little bit different. He also wants to continue exploring this trend in the future, as he’s expressed a desire to one day make a Double Impact sequel with a third Van Damme thrown into the mix.