The 2012 film The Expendables 2 marked the first time most of the world had seen ‘80s action superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme in a major Hollywood film in nearly twenty years. Indeed, the Belgian action hero hadn’t appeared in a Hollywood production since the monumental 1999 flop Universal Soldier: The Return, which appeared years after van Damme’s star had begun to wane definitively. In a profile in The Guardian coinciding with Expendables 2, Van Damme explained that we was happy to get a chance, having turned down Sylvester Stallone’s offer of a role in the first Expendables in 2010 because “‘I was editing my movie, The Eagle Path… I said, ‘I cannot do it!’ And he said, ‘Excuse me!?’ But I had that fever. If the King of Thailand is calling me, no, I stay in my room – cutting, cutting, cutting…’”
Surely, one would think, this must be another DVD-only film, the kind he’d been signing on for consistently on since falling from grace in the studio system in the mid-’90s. Why would he turn down the event capital-A action flick of the year in favor of another Hong Kong-produced “C” movie? What could be so important about The Eagle Path?
As it turns out, it was actually a project Van Damme had begun working on in the late ‘00s, serving as writer, director, producer and star. The first version of the film went on to be screened out of competition at Cannes in 2010.
The paltry reviews from the festival point to a strange dichotomy in the film between standard Van Damme-y action and pulpy romance, and lofty, arty ambitions. Variety went so far as to suggest a Jean-Luc Godard influence on the film’s “Freudian-themed montages” — and . Mike Leeder from Black Belt Mag, who visited the set, claimed that the film is “a dark journey that at times seems reminiscent of the work of Johnnie To or Pierre Melville in terms of character development and the way things play out.” Van Damme, crouching like a frog prior to the Cannes screening in jeans and a white tee, described it simply as “complex…I have a complex mind.”
The film’s 2010 trailer — still, its only formal preview clip — bears out the conflicting reports. Blue lighting out of a Michael Mann movie falls over a shadowy van Damme driving a taxi, while apparitions of a mysterious woman flit before his eyes. There are flashbacks of a grubby-looking young-Van-Damme character in overalls playing with a revolver, juxtaposed with an eagle staring ominously into the camera. The gunfights don’t start until halfway through the clip.
The trailer is, more or less, an incomprehensible collection of images. It’s only clear that, for all the hallucinatory imagery, The Eagle Path (not The Eagle’s Path, Jean-Claude?) is intended to be, in basic outline, a fairly conventional action-quest film. Other leaked clips, though, lend the project an artier film noir air:
The formal synopsis of the movie passed around in 2009 is as follows, and seems relatively innocuous:
A military veteran and former mercenary, Frenchy (Van Damme) works as a taxi driver, hiding somewhere in East Asia, haunted by his past. After his driving shifts he often frequents the Eagle’s Nest, a seedy bar that houses a caged eagle. In the midst of the chaotic Asian traffic Frenchy picks up a beautiful female passenger who will change him forever.
Driven by dark memories of his childhood, he becomes determined to improve her life and, without her approval, he embarks on a journey which proves to be more dangerous and complicated then he expected. After encountering a series of harrowing obstacles he calls in favors from his special ops friends who immediately join him. His military team engages in the biggest fight of their lives. War is hell, but nothing they’ve done could have prepared them for this.
But The Eagle Path was never to be seen again. City on Fire claims that Van Damme was dissatisfied with the cut. A 2011 preorder link for DVD and Blu-ray went on Amazon, but the date was postponed for most of that year, and eventually the listing disappeared.
In 2012, parts of the film were reshot, and scenes added, with the help of Van Damme’s old buddy — Timecop and Hard Target producer Moshe Diamant — seemingly to help clear up issues that van Damme and Cannes viewers noticed in the first cut of the film. In a now-deleted Facebook post, Van Damme renamed the project Soldiers.
Then, everything seemed to go underwater until a new cut of the film, now titled Full Love, came to the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2014. No formal reviews were released, but there is footage of Van Damme speaking about the film. He explains that he uses a great deal of “slow motion, the old-fashioned way… the sweaty way,” and that the film is divided into three basic sections — in “Louisiana, the war, the heat of Malaysia” — each of which employ a different color palette. The “war” section is in black and white — which is, as he puts it, “different than Schindler” with more “contrast.”
A bit of all of these sections can be seen in the leaked clips below, which jump frantically between images of childhood and close-range shootouts in everywhere from luxury hotels to church pulpits. Van Damme’s “Frenchy” is, according to his dramatic voiceover, searching only for “freedom. Freedom to do whatever you want… free to have a good life.” Looks like he’s got a weighty, convoluted hulk of painful memories to shake off first, though.
Why six years in the making? an interviewer enquired of Van Damme on the red carpet. “To find love, it takes years of practice,” Van Damme smiles coyly.
Despite various early 2016 release dates for Full Love being bandied about on imdB and Wikipedia, there has not yet been any indication that the film will be distributed. But one simply can’t imagine that, after all this work, van Damme will let it go completely, even if he has to ante up for a brief theatrical or streaming run all by myself. One day, the world will see JCVD’s Tree of Life exactly as he wanted it to be seen, and earn its reputation as one of the all-time strangest passion projects by a major star in film history.Photos via Frazer Harrison/Getty Images, YouTube/Winston Cook-Wilson