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The Diverging and Bizarre Paths of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal

One’s the self-aware star of a new Amazon TV show, the other’s a Putin-sympathizing man of mystery (and girth). How did the fates of two of the biggest ’90s action stars move in such different directions?

Getty Images/Warner Bros./The Cannon Group/Ringer illustration

Donald Trump once claimed that Citizen Kane was his favorite movie. We know better. In a 1997 New Yorker profile, writer Mark Singer took a private flight with Trump and saw the future president’s taste in movies up close. Singer recorded Trump getting bored watching the then-current John Travolta vehicle Michael and switching instead to Bloodsport, the 1988 underground-fighting extravaganza that introduced Jean-Claude Van Damme to the world. Trump (correctly) called Bloodsport “an incredible, fantastic movie” and assigned his son Eric, then 13, to fast-forward straight to all the fight scenes.

The admiration, it turns out, is mutual. Last year, a couple of weeks before the presidential election, Van Damme, giving a TMZ interview in a dark parking lot—wearing blue-tinted sunglasses and a baseball cap with his own initials, a chihuahua tucked under his arm—gave his all-important endorsement: “Look, I love my brother Muslims. They love martial arts. I love them. I love everybody on earth. Right now, we need Donald Trump.”

It was a shocking moment, one that might’ve grown even more shocking with time. With that, Van Damme became one of very few high-profile entertainers to stand with Trump. And Van Damme, who once attended a bare-knuckle fight with Vladimir Putin in Russia, also said that America and Russia need to be friends because “all the rest are weak country [sic], except America is strong, and Russia is strong. So they have to shake hands.”

As effusive as Van Damme might be in his praise of both Trump and Putin, he’s got nothing on his old action-movie counterpart, Steven Seagal. Seagal’s from Michigan, but last year, Putin awarded him with Russian citizenship. (Seagal is also, as of last year, a Serbian citizen.) Seagal has defended Putin’s annexation of Crimea; and with his blues-rock band, he even performed a 2014 concert in Crimea, on a stage decorated with the flag of pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine. (A Russian-nationalist motorcycle gang called the Night Wolves organized the show.) Seagal has since been banned from Ukraine, labeled a national security threat.

In a Good Morning Britain interview a few months ago, Seagal—wearing tiny glasses, a black frog-button martial arts shirt, and an enormous Bond-villain goatee—spoke live from Russia, the Kremlin looming behind him. When Piers Morgan asked him about Trump, Seagal decried the “enemies within,” the “leftover Obama-ites and people who really feel that they should really, sort of, kind of overthrow Trump.” Seagal also called kneeling NFL protesters “disgusting” and said that the idea that Russia interfered with American elections was “astronomical propaganda.”

As strange as it may be to see the two martial arts heroes of late-’80s and early-’90s Hollywood jumping on the Russia-is-our-friend bandwagon, it’s really the only thing Van Damme and Seagal share these days.

They’ve always been linked. Both broke into the movie business with 1988 B-movie vehicles—Seagal with Above the Law, Van Damme with Bloodsport. Both claimed legitimate martial arts backgrounds—Van Damme in karate and kickboxing, Seagal in aikido. They both peaked commercially around the same time—Seagal with 1992’s Under Siege, Van Damme with 1994’s Timecop. They both slid into straight-to-video ignominy in the late ’90s. They both even attempted comebacks in two of this decade’s most parodically over-the-top action movies—Seagal as the sword-brandishing Mexican drug lord Rogelio Torrez in 2010’s Machete, Van Damme as the neck-tatted mercenary Jean Vilain in 2012’s The Expendables 2.

Bound together, they’ve made for a fascinating pair. Both men turned their names into micro-genres, establishing their own trademarks and rarely veering from the lanes they paved for themselves. Van Damme had the rippling musculature, the beautiful high-spinning kicks, and the balletic splits. He showed his ass in a lot of movies. He played a lot of Cajun characters, presumably to explain away that accent. His movies were over-the-top and ridiculous. He’d punch a rattlesnake and bite off its rattle, or knock a tree down by kicking it, or kill a henchman disguised as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ mascot. His fights were intricate, choreographed affairs. Seagal, on the other hand, smirked a lot, dished one-liners, and tried out absurd accents. His characters tended to have mysterious backgrounds in CIA Black Ops, something Seagal himself also claimed to have. His fights were nasty, brutish, and short, without any wasted motion. He broke a lot of wrists and threw a lot of people through a lot of bar windows. For years, the two seemed like the next guys up in American action movies, the ones who would take over for Schwarzenegger and Stallone once their stars had faded. Neither would ever pull it off.

They didn’t like being compared to one another. In a 1991 interview with Arsenio Hall, Seagal, staring coldly at a stammering Arsenio, said this of Van Damme: “I think that that’s a matter of opinion, that he was a champion anywhere. … There are an awful lot of people who say that that’s not true.” Meanwhile, Sylvester Stallone has told a story about Van Damme challenging Seagal to a fight, multiple times, on the night of a 1997 party at Stallone’s house. (Stallone says Seagal backed down.)

But while their careers were intertwined for years, they’ve gone in starkly different directions lately. Over the past few years, only Van Damme has shown interest in playing with his persona or with making half-decent movies. Seagal, on the other hand, has made plenty of movies, but he seems more interested in becoming a globe-trotting supervillain’s henchman. Three decades after Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme came into the public eye, it might be time to stop comparing them.

Van Damme began to redefine himself with 2008’s JCVD, playing a washed-up movie star named Jean-Claude Van Damme. In the movie, Van Damme has an estranged daughter and addiction problems, and there’s a bit about how he keeps losing roles to Seagal. After his character is taken hostage during a bank robbery, there’s one staggering scene where Van Damme definitively breaks the fourth wall. Floating up above the film set and staring directly into the camera, Van Damme, speaking in his native French, lines etched into his face and tears welling in his eyes, talks about women and drugs and regrets: “I still ask myself today what I’ve done on this earth. Nothing! I’ve done nothing!” The scene lasts nearly seven minutes—it’s surprising, absurd, and weirdly moving. It represented a break for Van Damme, as if he had become self-aware in one single stroke.

It’s not that Van Damme stopped making cheesy straight-to-DVD action movies after JCVD. He didn’t. He made a lot of them. He still makes a lot of them. (Just this year, he was in Kill ’Em All, a bald Usual Suspects rip-off in which he and Autumn Reeser, formerly of The O.C., take on a gang of mercenaries in an abandoned hospital.) Even Van Damme’s worst recent movies tend to be generally watchable, mostly for the fights. The 57-year-old Belgian has stayed in shape; he’s got the impressively gristly physique of an aging man who refuses to stop training constantly. He still throws those smooth, poetic spinning kicks, and he still allows himself to be tossed around. He’s also taken on more interesting material.

In 2010 and 2012, Van Damme appeared in a pair of straight-to-DVD sequels to his 1992 hit Universal Soldier. Director John Hyams (the son of Peter Hyams, who directed Van Damme in Timecop and Sudden Death) made them into vivid, visceral headfucks, drawing on David Lynch and Gaspar Noé and The Twilight Zone. They’re better, stranger movies than straight-to-DVD action sequels really should be, and they turn Van Damme into a bitter, confused human weapon with only a ghost of a memory about his own past. They might be the best movies that Van Damme has ever made.

And while he’s never going to be Daniel Day-Lewis, Van Damme appears to enjoy the art of acting more than he did in his commercial heyday. He’s picking fun roles, ones that bounce off of his screen persona in interesting ways. In 2013’s Enemies Closer, he’s a villainous vegan environmentalist disguised as a Mountie. In last year’s Kickboxer: Vengeance, a remake of one of his signature movies, he’s the hard-bitten, seen-it-all trainer rather than the young rookie. In two Kung Fu Panda sequels, he voices a martial artist crocodile. And then there’s the viral Volvo commercial from 2013, where Van Damme does the splits between two backwards-speeding trucks while uplifting new age music plays and the sun sets serenely in the background. These are the choices of a man who has come to peace with his own ridiculousness.

Right now, Van Damme is the star of a new Amazon show called Jean-Claude Van Johnson, and it might be the most goofily meta Van Damme project in a decade full of them. As in JCVD, the show features Van Damme as a faded movie star named Jean-Claude Van Damme. This time around, though, the high concept is that Van Damme is really an undercover secret agent; movie stardom has been his cover the entire time. Van Damme doesn’t seem to be a particularly gifted agent; he keeps trying to disappear into disguises while bloviating about how great his movies are. Phylicia Rashad is in there for some reason. It’s weird.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson isn’t an especially good show; it’s too impressed with its own conceit and too full of broadly goofy characters, like the coke-snorting douchebag auteur who’s directing Van Damme in an action-movie version of Huckleberry Finn in Bulgaria. There’s an endless bit where Van Damme plays a dual role, also embodying a whining Bulgarian mob underling who adores Van Damme movies and who looks just like Van Damme. Everything about that, especially the squeaky voice that Van Damme uses for his alter ego, is unbearable. But at six half-hour episodes, the show remains an easy watch, and it’s full of grandly dumb tributes to the Van Damme oeuvre. Van Damme drives a Fast & Furious–style drift race while blindfolded. Van Damme travels back in time several minutes. Van Damme goes underground, hiding out in an abandoned Blockbuster (“Nobody’s looked for me here in years”) and training by wrapping VHS tape around his fists.

And the theatrically self-pitying sadness that Van Damme showed in JCVD returns. “You have a big hole in your heart because you don’t think that you will ever be loved,” Van Damme tells himself at one point. Those scenes are a strange fit for a show that aims, more often than not, for self-referential parody. But that sort of grandiloquent self-abuse has become a crucial part of the Van Damme persona. He’s spent a decade finding deeply silly ways to reckon with the deeply silly nature of his own fame. And for that, he’s a treasure, Trump endorsement or no.

It’s impossible to imagine Steven Seagal attempting anything this self-aware, or attempting anything that’s the slightest bit self-aware. He may, at this late date, be the least self-aware person on the planet. This is a man who, for decades, has claimed some sort of mysterious past in either the CIA or the Navy SEALs, despite no evidence of either and the existence of an excoriating 1993 Spy exposé that debunked Seagal’s claims and made him look like the world’s biggest asshole. Seagal is still making those claims; just this year, he told Piers Morgan, “I myself have risked my life countless times for the American flag.”

Seagal also has a long and deeply troubling history with sexual predation. In 2010, a former assistant sued Seagal for, among other things, sexual harassment and illegal trafficking of women. And in the past few months, actresses Portia de Rossi, Julianna Margulies, and Jenny McCarthy have accused Seagal of sexual harassment over the years. Maybe the claims against Seagal haven’t gotten as much attention as the claims against other powerful men because Seagal, quite simply, is no longer a powerful man.

One thing Seagal has in common with Van Damme: He’s played himself on TV. But in Seagal’s case, it was on Steven Seagal: Lawman, an A&E reality show that followed Seagal in his secondary career as an occasional deputy sheriff in Louisiana and Arizona. The show worked like a surreal twist on Cops: A hectic, herky-jerky cinema-verité document of police life, except that the policeman depicted was a thrill-chasing former movie star who, for no compelling reason, was allowed to do police business. The show’s production was halted after that 2010 lawsuit. And a year later, an Arizona man who’d been charged with running a cockfighting ring sued Seagal after Seagal took part in a raid in which the family dog had been shot and killed.

When Seagal was in Arizona, he worked under Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff whom Donald Trump recently pardoned after he was convicted of criminal contempt of court. (Essentially, Arpaio had refused to stop profiling Latinos.) Arpaio recently wrote the foreword for The Way of the Shadow Wolves, the new novel that Seagal co-wrote. (It’s about “the Deep State and the hijacking of America,” and Seagal appears on the cover in a buckskin jacket.) Seagal seems to be drawn to people like Arpaio and Trump and Putin, people who go to great lengths to maintain their repressive power.

Seagal’s friendship with Putin is long and well-documented. And Seagal has also been spending time with dictators like Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. A deeply strange video of Lukashenko gifting Seagal a freshly peeled carrot went viral last year. Earlier this month, Seagal was in the Philippines, visiting troops alongside President Rodrigo Duterte, whose police death squads have killed thousands.

But Seagal is still making movies. He’s only appeared in one this year: China Salesman, a Chinese movie in which Seagal, in a small supporting role, gets into a bar fight with Mike Tyson. (The movie hasn’t been released in the U.S., but that fight is on YouTube, and it is bad.) In 2016, though, Seagal showed up in seven different movies, three of which came from the same director (one Keoni Waxman) and all of which are near-impossible to watch.

Recent-vintage Seagal movies tend to be lobotomized-Bourne international-espionage things with byzantine plots that become even harder to parcel out when Seagal, who likes to speak very slowly, is in charge of the exposition. He usually gets one scene per movie in which he paws at a much younger, topless woman. He gets stunt doubles to do most of his fighting, and when we do see him move, he commits as little movement as possible to his aikido slaps. There are fight scenes in which he literally remains sitting the entire time. He’s put on a lot of weight, and his face has become an expressionless mask; he doesn’t even smirk anymore. With that goatee, it’s almost like his once-famous ponytail just migrated to the other side of his face, took on a permanent donut shape, and stayed there.

Seagal almost never appears alongside recognizable actors, although 2016’s Sniper: Special Ops does feature Rob Van Dam, the pro wrestler who got his name because of his ability to perform extraordinary splits and a resemblance to Jean-Claude Van Damme. It’s probably the closest thing we’ll ever get to a Seagal–Van Damme movie.