In which I attempt to do the splits in bikini briefs...journalistically speaking.
Never was there a more fertile era for white guys doing karate than the '80s and early '90s. The previous decade saw the rise of Sonny Chiba, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee (along with countless imitators) and in recent years guys like Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Tony Jaa have seized some of the spotlight, but for Caucasians with bad hair circle kicking each other through drywall, you need to go back to the Reagan-Bush years.
Of course, the godfather of these was Chuck Norris, the only one who could actually lay claim to fighting the original Dragon (in film, that is). A certified badass (he retired from professional karate in 1974 with a lifetime record of 183-10-2), Chuck would be the default winner of any Slap Fight I could put him in, excepting perhaps against Lee himself.
But there were others beating the crap out of each other at the same time. Some were C-level guys whose names were less memorable than the titles of the movies they made (American Ninja's Michael Dudikoff, James Ryan from Kill and Kill Again), while others experience greater fame and success. Two of these guys found their stars on the rise as Norris was relegated to stuff like Missing in Action and Delta Force sequels, briefly eclipsing Lone Wolf McQuade himself.
Of course I'm talking about Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
And In This Corner: Jean-Claude Van Damme, AKA The "Muscles from Brussels," black belt in Shotokan karate, and the actor who quite possibly has set the record for playing double roles in movies (4).
Origin Stories If you have any recollection of the late 1980s, you may remember an interview Seagal gave (promoting Above the Law, his first starring role) where he made references to "special favors" he'd done for the Agency. Reading between the lines (and ignoring the numerous cries of "Bullshit!" disguised as coughs), Seagal was obviously trying to paint himself as a freelance "wet boy." Benefits of growing up overseas before social media.
As time passed, Seagal's claims became more and more exaggerated (fighting yakuza, fluency in four languages), however, he's at least embarking on new career paths (musician, deputy sheriff) to keep us all entertained. Currently, Seagal is making mostly straight-to-DVD stuff and tending to his remarkable hairpiece.
Van Damme has no such mystery surrounding his younger years. Raised in Brussels, he studied karate and lifted weights (earning the title "Mr. Belgium") before traveling to America and breaking into movies (literally, as an extra in Breakin'). His coming-out role was in 1988's Bloodsport, and he enjoyed quite a bit of success until the mid-90s, when mullets and axe kicks fell out of favor with American audiences. From there it was cocaine, divorces and Romanian action movies.
His career has undergone a resurgence of late, starting with 2008's JCVD, in which he plays a version of himself.
Much as I like Van Damme's poignant monologue in JCVD, I have to call it for Seagal, who appears to have lived his life in some kind of shroud of contempt, both for truth and for those who refuse to believe his version of it.
Incidentally, Shroud of Contempt would be a great name for a Steven Seagal movie.
Marriages: Van Damme: Five (though two of these were to the same woman) Seagal: Four
Normally I'd assign an automatic DQ for marrying the same woman twice, and much credit should be given for landing Kelly LeBrock back before she destroyed her face with plastic surgery, but seeing as how both dudes have a history of spousal abuse, they're both losers in this category.
Cinematic Output: Maybe it was because I'd (finally) started growing out of the action movies of my youth at the time, but I never really warmed up to Seagal. I appreciated his speed, and his non-ironic ponytail, but something about him left me cold. Maybe it's because he runs like Julia Roberts. Still, he had a good run of about a half dozen better-than-decent movies, culminating with Under Siege, his biggest hit to date.
Van Damme was about as pretty as a man got back in the day, so naturally my friends and I all hated him/were in denial about our true feelings. My issue with JCVD isn't so much that as it is how he ruined martial arts tournaments for me. I remember when my friends and I sat down to watch the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, thinking it was going to be like Bloodsport: a weirdly cool mix of Muay thai, crane style and kung fu. How disappointed were we that the winner was some skinny Brazilian guy who twisted his opponents' ankle until they cried?
You lied to me, Van Damme. And even though Cyborg was so awful it killed what little of my soul was left, I'm calling this a draw solely based on JCVD and how badass Expendables 2 is going to be.
Martial Arts Moves: I'm the first to admit I know next to nothing about the fighting arts. The school of sucker punching/laying out opponents with a heavy object and running has served my family since the reign of Charles VI, so I'm judging based solely on visual appeal.
First, Seagal's arm break, which is up there with Joe Hallenbeck's nose-into-the-brain as one of the best "fuck you" shots of all time.
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Then there's Van Damme, who managed to incorporate the splits into almost every damn movie he ever made. The kitchen counter version from Timecop might be my favorite.
The Verdict: For sheer body of ridiculously awesome work, I'd have to go with Seagal, but why would you argue against "Wham Bam, Thank You Van Damme" and his inspirational story of redemption?
Because Casey Ryback never needed redemption, that's why. It's Seagal by a ponytail.