Burden of Dreams: Van Damme's Directorial Debut
"This is the true story of a lost young man who started life with a gift,
and through the grace of The Universe was given a Quest."
So begins the leather-bound prop book, The Quest by Carrie Newton, that appears in the closing moments of Jean-Claude Van Damme's directorial debut of the same name. The book is a superfluous, retrofitted framing device for the story just relayed first-hand by an aged Christopher Dubois. Van Damme portrays the protagonist himself, whom we follow from the streets of 1920's New York to The Lost City of Tibet, where he fights in the clandestine martial arts tournament known as the Ghan-gheng. The next paragraph of Newton's account ought to further detail Dubois' great journey but instead goes on to announce a new line of sailing and racing Genoese yachts. The filmmakers never replaced the template text in the design! Such is the attention to detail on display in the preceding 90-minute feature, a few cliched lines padded with the artifice of grandeur.
The title of this film has more to do with its creator than its content. Known to collectors of his early 90's appearances in magazines like Karate International and Inside Kung-Fu as everything from "Kumite" to "Enter The New Dragon," the movie that would become The Quest was to be Van Damme's grand salute to the genre that brought him worldwide fame and success before he went on to bigger and better things. By 1995, JCVD was at the peak of his powers in Hollywood, and he used that clout to write, star, and direct his dream project. Unfortunately, by the time The Quest hit theaters, the karate film conventions Van Damme helped define were already passé and offering only diminishing returns. It didn't help that the movie was more focused on slow-motion close-ups of its star actor/director and his famous "Muscles from Brussels" than its characters or story.
As early as 1991, Van Damme was quoted in everything from martial arts magazines to The Washington Post talking about his plans to someday make, "the biggest karate movie ever! [It's going to be] "like Spartacus in Tibet! We're going to open this movie at the Cannes festival in three years with the London Philharmonic!"
Recalling the inception of the film, Van Damme could almost be talking about his own experience coming to America from Belgium on a quest to be a movie star. "I was in a Thai restaurant. I was alone—maybe lonely—and I was drinking one or two beers, so I was kind of loose. And I started to write a story about an orphan—a guy who came from France on his own with a dream to become successful."
It's clear Van Damme's passion and dreams were the inspiration for The Quest, but they're not effectively channeled through the film itself. The driving force of The Quest should be the character of Christopher Dubois, but instead, it was the career aspirations of its auteur. Van Damme wanted his directorial debut to make Hollywood history, but he was too focused on being “the biggest” and lost sight of being “the best.”
Back then, all of Van Damme’s films were vehicles for his unique blend of karate and charisma. With each movie he was trying something new—even playing two characters in one film to show more versatility, all to make it onto Hollywood's A-List. In The Quest, he tries to cram too many character types into one role. Dubois is shown as a frail old man, a boyish man-child on stilts wearing mime makeup, a bearded stowaway, a chiseled Muay Thai champion, an impeccably dressed valet, and the only Ghan-ghen combatant not wearing a garish cartoon costume.
Even though they were rougher around the edges in terms of scope and industry respectability, most of Van Damme's pre-Quest films were filled with vigor and transcendence. The movies themselves may have been viewed as second-class, but his presence always elevated them. The Quest seems to be an attempt at combining elements of nascent, low-budget triumphs like Bloodsport, Kickboxer, and Lionheart with a Universal Pictures bankroll and the prestigious backdrop of a period film. Unfortunately, it lacks the focus and vitality of those earlier efforts.
The specious plot details and convoluted story of The Quest are secondary to the heroic exaltation of Van Damme's character and pale in comparison to the simpler, more memorable execution in his previous films—Bloodsport, in particular. In both movies, there's the indomitable white American fighter with a thick European accent. There's "a secret contest where the world's greatest warriors fight in a battle to the death" (the actual tagline on the poster for Bloodsport). There's an opening credits montage in which invitations are delivered to the different fighters in their respective countries—all previewing their distinct styles—finishing with a surly American brawler who will become Van Damme's loyal friend. There's a scene where his character playfully evades pursuit by authorities, grinning ear to ear. There's a match-ending punch to the groin. There's a scene in which the fighter we're meant to think no one can beat kills a fellow tournament combatant in the ring to cement his status as The Big Bad. There's the slow-motion, knock-out "helicopter kick" to the face of Big Bad. And through it all, there's a tenacious blonde reporter after, "what every woman wants, a great story." (Those are words spoken out-loud in a major motion picture by an actress in The Quest!)
Whenever Van Damme talked about The Quest, the word "dream" was invoked, and the movie unfolds with something of a dream-like logic. At the beginning of the film, Dubois clutches a bag of money he has stolen from the mob and says to his gang of homeless street kids, "With this we buy respect. If we want something, we take it. Forever and ever." That's actual dialog a 32-year-old actor says to a gathering of children dressed like extras from Newsies. With money, they could buy things and no longer have to steal them! "Forever and ever"? This mashup of Oliver!, Robinhood, and Peter Pan is truly a bizarre puzzling preamble to the Kumite tournament promised in the opening credit sequence.
"The Kids," as he always refers to them, are just a vague, emotionally disconnected means of lending Van Damme's character a sense of nobility—the thief with a heart of gold… who later assumes a quest to steal a gold dragon. But Dubois never reveals why he wants the golden dragon. He hops aboard a ship to escape the mob and ends up on Muay Thai Island, so presumably, he wants it so he can pay his way back to New York and "The Kids," but he never says so. After the 30-minute mark, they're not referred to at all until the very end.
Predictably, Dubois wins the tournament, but he isn't awarded the golden dragon. Before the final match, he offers to forego the prize in exchange for the freedom of the men who sold him into slavery during the first act. These last few sentences may read like nonsequiturs, but it all makes about as much sense in the film. Just as with “The Kids,” this sacrifice only serves to make Van Damme’s character appear admirable.
When he is named the "greatest warrior of the Ghan-gheng," Chris smiles, puts on his newsboy cap, and saddles up to Carrie Newton. The two of them walk off to fulfill a romance barely hinted at as the golden dragon MacGuffin takes the foreground and Old Man Van Damme returns in voice-over to say "I didn't get the golden dragon, but I returned to New York like I promised, got the kids off the streets... in the end, we all did just fine." How did he get the kids off the streets?! How is his situation any different now than it was when he fled?
The Quest raises innumerable unanswered questions—including the one which prompts the telling of the story-within-a-story-within-a-book in the film's first scene. After Old Man Van Damme rescues a bartender from being robbed with a few well-placed kicks and clever use of his cane, the man asks, "Where did you learn to fight like that?" Though Chris begins by replying "it was long ago..." there is never a training sequence. From the jump, whether he's kicking mobsters while juggling on stilts, besting bullies on Muay Thai Island, or fighting his way through a ship deck full of pirates, he is instantly sized up by Roger Moore's character as "the best fighter I've ever seen." (That's right, Sir Roger Moore is in this movie! But that's a whole other thing...)
Perhaps Chris's quest is one of character—to act honorably instead of the "what we want, we take" attitude with which he starts the film. The problem is, from the first frame he is always presented as a hero, so his redemption rings hollow.
Perhaps there’s a truly epic two-and-a-half-hour cut of The Quest where everything is better set up and paid off, but what made it to the silver screen is mostly beauty shots of Van Damme and loosely associated sequences offering him a chance to act out the sorts of scenes he must have fantasized playing as a kid himself. In a wistful on-set interview, Van Damme describes the film as, "about a dream... about adventure... It's very epic. It has so many faces and corners, it has the shape of a diamond. That's my definition of The Quest."
Sadly, by the time he was promoting the film's release, Van Damme's dreams had gone bad. Struggling with drug addiction, marital problems, and the trappings of the status and fame he fought so hard for, the scrawny Belgian kid turned heavy-weight international action-movie superstar had even lost his desire to direct films.
"It was a nightmare," he confesses in interview clips from The Quest press junket. "A movie take[s] a lot from you. It can drain everything you have. For four months, [I was working] six or seven days a week [...] sleeping three-to-four hours a day. To be able to be strong, physically in shape, long hours of shooting... I will not do it again. It was too hard. Ugh!"
It would be almost 15 years before Van Damme threw his newsboy cap in the ring as a director again. His follow-up to The Quest has yet to be commercially released, but it has been screened for distributors as The Eagle Path in 2010, Soldiers in 2012, and Full Love in 2014. In all incarnations of this unreleased opus, Van Damme plays Frenchy, a man "haunted by his past and determined to complete one last mission: His Own." Choking back tears on the 2011 reality TV series Behind Closed Doors, he admits, “in the editing room I thought about myself a little too much… of how to look the best… handsome… and this and that… and maybe didn’t take too much care of the message."
The same could be said of The Quest, a movie also marred by vanity and hubris. Though still, despite all his faults, I can't help but root for the guy. In June of 2020, Van Damme declared the newly re-edited and re-named Frenchy "finally finished" and awaiting distribution. My take on The Quest may seem harsh, but that's only because I believe in Jean-Claude Van Damme. When he strikes the right balance—be it between two chairs, two Volvo trucks, or just among his better angels—he's every bit as great as The Quest aspires to be. And when Frenchy is eventually released, I'll be first standing in line—or logging online—to see it.
- David Ullman
Excerpted from Bloodspurt: The Films of Jean-Claude Van Damme, available in hardback, softcover, and Kindle editions from BearManor Media.
Bloodspurt: The Films of Jean-Claude Van Damme Collected from across the nation, over thirty writers, film critics, academics, artists, filmmakers and editors tackle the complete film oeuvre of action star Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Muscles from Brussels has been a beloved fixture in action cinema for four decades… that mullet notwithstanding. Loved or hated, JCVD has always been regarded as the nicest butt-kicker in the business and wholly self aware of his cult film status – and exactly how he got there. If the Kumite couldn’t stop him, or all of those groin-wrenching splits, is there any force on the planet that could impede the sultan of spin kicks? In examining JCVD’s films, maybe this eclectic group of professionals can answer those nagging questions. Regardless, whenever you run into Jean-Claude Van Damme in an alley, lit or otherwise, prepare for the… Bloodspurt.