Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Most Infamous Sci-Fi Movie is a Fun Ride with a Dark Backstory

No one is safe from JCVD, even when they should be.

Written by James Balmont
Cannon Films
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In the not-too-distant future, civilization has been destroyed by genocide, starvation, and plague, and chaos reigns in the wastelands surrounding the collapsed Brooklyn Bridge. As guerilla fighters battle amid the desolation, one woman, Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon) — who is also, for some reason, a robot — harbors a secret that could save humanity. As menacing baddies led by the ruthless Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn) seek to exploit her to monopolize the production of the world-ravaging plague’s cure, a muscled mercenary named Gibson Rickenbacker is tasked with protecting her precious bounty.

This is the well-worn premise to 1989’s not-quite-classic sci-fi Cyborg, a bargain bin action dystopia taking its cues from The Terminator and Mad Max. Cyborg boasts vivid production design, the kind of God-awful music later associated with PS1 horror games, and all manner of bizarre eccentricities (why are many characters named after musical instrument manufacturers?). Turning 35 this month, this brazen B-movie remains something of a minor cult classic as a relic of the schlock cinema boom of the late ’80s, when the VHS format breathed new life into martial arts action romps, horror sequels, and low-budget rip-offs.

It was also one of the films that launched the career of Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose muscles from Brussels would join those of fellow Cannon Films alumni Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone as the real attractions of the studio’s “high-powered, high-voltage motion picture entertainment.” Cannon had all the ingredients for a low-stakes success story with their second JCVD ruckus, but the studio hadn’t accounted for the newfound star’s propensity for recklessness. A tragic incident on the Cyborg set would foreshadow further eyebrow-raising antics in the ’90s, which would ultimately lead to the decline of Van Damme’s reputation.

But in 1989, the world was JCVD’s sweaty oyster. Already a karate black belt and Mr. Belgium bodybuilding title holder at 18, he’d moved to the States in 1982 to pursue an acting career. Just five years after his debut credit as “Gay Karate Man” in 1984 comedy Monaco Forever, and two years after he abandoned his role as the Predator in Predator, he was on the cusp of a breakout as a fresh-faced and robust lead. He wasn’t much of an actor (his dialogue in Cyborg is scarce), but as his starring role in Cannon’s 1988 ninjutsu romp Bloodsport had confirmed, he had a memorable screen presence. Unfortunately, his committed attitude to macho roles would be his undoing.

As Gibson Rickenbacker — a ripped mercenary who dispatches ragged, machete-twirling thugs with roundhouse kicks, slits throats with a retractable toe-blade, and even endures crucifixion atop the mast of a beached shipwreck — JCVD plays the stereotypical man-of-few-words. But behind the scenes, the crew had plenty to say to him. According to court notes from a 1991 lawsuit, JCVD was warned multiple times by stuntmen, actors, and director Albert Pyun about his unwillingness to pull his punches during fight scenes, with casting agent Elizabeth Featherston testifying the defendant had a “reputation of making unnecessary contact with people and hurting them.” This was but the tip of the cyber-iceberg.

Cyborg wears its dystopian influences on its chainmail sleeve.

Cannon Films

According to Martha Lee, owner of the casting company that supplied the film’s special ability talent, one extra “suffered injuries to his leg and side” after JCVD hit him. Timothy Baker, a karate expert and stuntman, testified that the leading man kicked him so hard in the groin he couldn’t get up for over five minutes. “The production manager and the director all asked [the] defendant to try and hold back the contact,” the court documents read. “But [the] defendant just shrugged and kept kicking him.”

JCVD’s overzealousness seemingly stemmed from his desire to maximize Cyborg’s realism, but things got too real for co-star Jackson “Rock” Pinckney, a burly bodybuilder playing the role of broad-shouldered henchman Tytus. During a fight rehearsal, JCVD allegedly swung a prop knife much too close to Pinckney’s face. Despite being cautioned by the director, JCVD then struck Pinckney’s eye with the prop, causing permanent injury. The court would ultimately conclude he was “reckless or manifestly indifferent to the consequences of his conduct.”

Pinckney was awarded $487,000 in damages in 1994, just as JCVD began to head towards career destruction. Despite a string of hits that cemented him as a bankable star — Kickboxer (1989), Universal Soldier (1992), and Timecop (1994) among them — JCVD was also becoming known for suspect behavior. In 2023, he would admit to launching a “humongous papaya” at the head of a producer attempting to slash the budget of 1991’s Double Impact, and he needed a wrangler to keep an eye on him while making 1994’s Street Fighter because he was “coked out of his mind.”

Jean-Claude Van Damme in Cyborg, possibly while breaking a stuntman’s ribs.

Cannon Films

JCVD was gradually relegated to direct-to-video action movies, but the eccentricities remained. In one bizarre incident, he reportedly drove his car into a canal in 2011 after a night spent at a disco in Belgium. “Keen to show off his muscles, the 50-year-old actor then attempted to pull the car out of the canal on his own,” reported the Irish Independent. By the time Shout Factory moved to release Cyborg on Blu-ray in 2018, JCVD had seemingly chosen to distance himself from the film, and didn’t participate in the special features.

Cyborg remains consigned to a pantheon of Hollywood productions tainted by tragic incidents on set. It’s a dubious roster that includes Stephen King’s techno-horror Maximum Overdrive, which saw cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi lose his right eye after a splinter of wood was ejected from a lawnmower into his face during filming, as well as notorious films like Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and The Crow (1994). Safety has improved over the decades, but recent incidents, like the tragedy on the set of Rust, show the industry still has a ways to go. Hopefully in the future, whether civilization has been destroyed a la Cyborg or not, chaos reigns only in the worlds of the Gibson Rickenbackers, not in those of the Van Dammes.

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