Before venturing into films, he had a career in the martial arts competitions. He also did some bodybuilding and studied ballet for five years.
Starting with couple minor roles in Breakin', Monaco Forever and Street of the Damned, his first major role in movies was Ivan, the champion of the villains in No Retreat, No Surrender. He later found his Star-Making Role in Bloodsport, which highlighted his legitimate martial arts skills along with his flexibility (a man being able to do full leg splits is fairly rare).
His early films tended to recycle certain plot elements, like his character unknowingly having a twin brother or attending a martial arts competition for the sake of a fallen friend.
He's the father of three children: Kristopher (born 1987), Bianca (1990) and their half-brother, Nicholas (1995).
Van Damme's partial filmography:
- No Retreat, No Surrender (1986) — As Ivan Kraschinsky, an intimidating Russian martial artist and the main antagonist of the film. It was Van Damme's first major role in America.
- Bloodsport (1988) — As Frank Dux, who is compelled to enter an underground fighting tournament after the death of his sensei.
- Kickboxer (1989) - As Kurt Sloane, who seeks revenge against a brutal kickboxer who paralyzed his brother from the waist down.
- Cyborg (1989) — Jean-Claude Van Damme being awesome on a post-apocalyptic future. One of director Albert Pyun's most commercially successful films.
- Lionheart (1990) — As Lyon, who enters American underground fighting circuit after the death of his brother to help his family.
- Death Warrant (1990) — As Louis Burke, a homicide cop sent to prison undercover to investigate a series of murders. Seen today, the film has quite a lot of Narm Charm
- Double Impact (1991) — Van Damme's characters find out that they are twin brothers and must avenge the death of their parents.
- Universal Soldier (1992) — He is pitted against Dolph Lundgren. And it's awesome.
- Nowhere To Run (1993) — As Sam Gillen, an escaped convict who protects a family from an evil developer who wants their land for his own.
- Hard Target (1993) — Jean-Claude is the Most Dangerous game for the villains. John Woo's first English-language film.
- Street Fighter (1994) — As Guile. Casting a man with thick Franco-Belgian accent as a very American character is only one of the film's So Bad, It's Good highlights.
- Time Cop (1994) — Van Damme's most commercially successful film.
- Sudden Death (1995) — Die Hard in a hockey stadium, notable for being filmed almost entirely within the Pittsburgh Civic Arena (with the building's huge retractable dome used as part of a plot point), as well as being the debut of the Pittsburgh Penguins' mascot, Iceburgh. Takes place during game 7 of the 1995 National Hockey League Stanley Cup Finals between the Pens and Chicago Blackhawks.
- The Quest (1996) — He also directed it. The movie wasn't a hit and didn't get very good reviews but it was praised for featuring actual martial artists and (more or less realistic) fighting styles across the world.
- Maximum Risk (1996) — Van Damme's character finds out that he had a twin brother and must avenge his death.
- Double Team (1997) — An anti-terrorist agent must un-retire to stop a terrorist alongside Dennis Rodman.
- Knock Off (1998) — As Marcus Ray, a fashion designer who must join forces with a CIA agent to stop a terrorist plot.
- Legionnaire (1998) — In 1924, a boxer pisses off a French mob boss and has to join the Foreign Legion to get away. He and his fellow Legionnaires end up fighting bedouins in the ass end of the Algerian desert. Notable for its well-researched weapons, remarkably good performance by JCVD, and complete lack of spin-kicks and/or men doing the splits. Also notable for Jean-Claude holding the fort gates alone with a Lewis Gun.
- Universal Soldier: The Return (1999) — Van Damme is once again Deveraux, who oversees an updated UniSol project that inevitably goes haywire.
- Desert Heat (1999) — An ex-soldier off to visit a friend gets shot by bad guys and his bike stolen. He survives. The bad guys don't.
- Replicant: (2001) — A cop uses the clone of a serial killer to track him down.
- In Hell (2003) — An American gets sent to a Russian prison for killing his wife's murderer. Directed by Hong Kong director Ringo Lam, it's one of the few films where Van Damme's fight scenes are few but also actually quite realistic.
- Wake Of Death (2004) — An ex-mobster takes on the Triads after his wife is brutally murdered.
- Second In Command (2006) — A Navy SEAL commander battles communist insurgents in Moldova.
- Until Death (2007) — A drug-addicted cop falls into a coma after a gunfight and upon his recovery decides to use his second chance at life. A nice departure from Van Damme's usual Action Hero roles.
- JCVD (2007) — A self-deprecating parody. His most critically praised film.
- Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)
- Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) — He is the voice of Master Croc. Feel free to explode if you want to. Master Croc does a split kick, naturally.
- Assassination Games (2011) — He's a professional killer who clashes with another killer on the same job.
- Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)
- The Expendables 2 (2012) — Of course. He's playing the villain, in a departure from the norm.
- Welcome to the Jungle (2013) — Another parody, with him playing a fake "military man" with a length special ops background who now runs weekend teambuilding survival sessions for corporations.
- Jean-Claude Van Johnson (2016) — Another parody show similar to JCVD. This time, he's a retired black ops agent turned actor trying to get back into the spy game.
Tropes applicable to the man:
- Adam Westing:
Van Damme: By the way, Drew has some ground rules...
- He plays himself in an episode of Las Vegas... and gets Killed Off for Real!
- JCVD is a feature-length version of the trope.
- And the Friends episode "The One After The Superbowl Part 2".
- Then there's his Coors Light adverts, where he's himself played up to about 86.
- Amazon Chaser: As mentioned below, his third (and current) wife is a former bodybuilder.
- Amicable Exes: He and his ex-wife remain close best friends, and he has promised that if she ever needs him, he'll be there to protect her. Aww...
- Arch-Enemy: Reputedly had a feud with Steven Seagal, which came to a head when Seagal (falsely) claimed Van Damme had lied about his achievements in martial arts. According to Sylvester Stallone, this came to a head at a party at his Miami home in 1997, when Van Damme offered to fight Seagal, who fled to a nightclub, and then fled again when Jean-Claude chased him to the local trying to end the thing.
- Bipolar Disorder: Was diagnosed in 1998.
- Captain Ersatz: Johnny Cage from Mortal Kombat games is modeled after him.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander
- Cunning Linguist: In addition to French and English, he also speaks German and Spanish.
- Divorce Is Temporary: He remarried his third wife, former bodybuilder Gladys Portugues, after a divorce which lasted 7 years (during which he married and divorced his fourth wife). The couple had another divorce in 2015 which lasted about 2 months. note
- Dumb Muscle: How popular media likes to stereotype him as.
- Embarrassing Nick Name: Reportedly does not like being called "The Muscles from Brussels."
- Extremity Extremist: His fighting style is usually focused on kicks.
- Gender-Blender Name: Camille is a unisex name in the French language, although it does tend to be more frequently used on men in somewhat traditional social circles. He himself finds it feels "old-fashioned, like the smell of a piece of Provence furniture."
- Gratuitous English: Particularly prone to this trope in his French-language interviews due to his propensity for codeswitching, which only compounds his Cloud Cuckoolander reputation among French people, who primarily know him as "that funny Belgian martial artist who delivers Ice Cream Koans in Frenglish". Most famously, using the word "Aware" to convey the idea of self-awareness (maybe)."Tu regardes à l'intérieur de toi et tu deviensnote aware of your own body!""Manger des cacahuètesnote , it's a really strong feeling.""J'ai perdu le touch, j'avais plus le feeling de la vie... [...]La drogue, c'est comme quand tu close your eyes et que tu traverses la rue..."note
- It Runs in the Family: He nominated his daughter Bianca for the ALS Ice Bucket challenge. In the video, Bianca shows off what her father and mother (Portugues) were famous for.
- Kick Chick: Gender-inverted example, compared to most 80s-90s action stars, he is noticably shorter and most of his fight scenes focus on using kicks, as would be expected of a trained Kickboxing, Taekwondo or Muay Thai practitioner.
- Mr. Fanservice: Guaranteed to show off his perfect ass in most films he stars in.
- Of his own admission, he may be perfectly comfortable with showing off his ass but full frontal is a whole different story, quote, "I wouldn't want to lose all my fans."
- Nice Guy: By all accounts in Real Life, apparently.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent:
- Real Men Wear Pink: He once took Ballet classes (and attests to how brutally difficult it truly is).
- Self-Deprecating Humor: Zigzagged; at the height of his fame and success he developed a bit of a reputation for humorless pomposity and taking himself overly seriously, but particularly in many of his later roles (such as JCVD, Welcome to the Jungle and Jean-Claude Van Johnson) he has displayed more of a willingness to poke fun at himself and the type of roles he takes.
- Serial Spouse: Married 5 times to four women, although he was married to his third (and current) wife for more than 15 years in total.
- Shirtless Scene: Nearly every movie features him at least shirtless a minimum of once. Several movies have shown him completely nude. It helps that he has a very nice body.
- Your Cheating Heart: Cheated on his third wife with a lady who eventually became his fourth wife. He then cheated on his fourth wife with Kylie Minogue, his Street Fighter co-star. His fourth wife was then pregnant AND had a cameo in the same movie.