There’s an unforgettable scene in 1993’s Hard Target, one of 16 action films that Jean-Claude Van Damme starred in that decade. He and the movie’s femme fatale are walking through the dense New Orleans forest, hoping to evade a group of men who are hunting him for sport. In a clearing, the woman rests up against a tree. They make small talk for a moment, then he approaches her. He asks her if she trusts him. “Of course I trust you,” she responds. He tells her to close her eyes. She plays coy. He asks her again, his confidence and gold hoop earring willing her into submission. Eventually, after they trade warm gazes, she obliges. The music, of a distinguishably romantic softness, increases in volume. She readies for a kiss, inevitable and impassioned. And as she does, Van Damme’s eyes turn to concrete. Next to her neck creeps a 7-foot-long rattlesnake.
Just as it strikes — THE MILLISECOND BEFORE IT REACHES HER THROAT — he grabs it with his left hand. She opens her eyes and nearly dies and a guitar screams in the background. The snake bucks. Van Damme almost smirks. Then he slaps it on the top of its head(!), punches it(!!) UNCONSCIOUS (!!!), BITES OFF ITS TAIL (!!!INFINITY!!!), then uses it as a booby trap that eventually bites the face of one of the men hunting him.
It was, for certain, the most compelling movie moment of the year, besting both Oskar’s breakdown in Schindler’s List and the T-Rex peeking its gigantor eyeball into the automobile in Jurassic Park. And yet, despite this all-galaxy moment, there is only image associated with Jean-Claude Van Damme: his most unstoppable, most identifiable karate move. The splits, yo.
From 1984 to now, Van Damme was in nearly 50 movies, and in those nearly 50 movies, he’s executed more than 80,000 splits. And here, in the most glorious fashion, are the 15* best of his career, because the summer’s ending, and we need this in our lives right now.
*Note: For this ranking, we concentrated solely on the real-deal splits. No splits were included if they occurred in the air, like when he jump splits-ed over Chong Li in the final match in Bloodsport, or if they occurred as part of a kick, which was basically every kick that he ever launched. There was only one exception, and that was done because of the importance of its context:
15. Monaco Forever (1984)
Why Did He Do the Splits? This is the first proper movie role of Van Damme’s career. His character is credited as “Gay Karate Man,” which is pretty wonderful. He’s in the movie for all of two and a half minutes. In his scene, he picks up a hitchhiking jewel thief played by Charles Pitt, tells him he has a nice body, then grabs his penis. After that, JCVD tries to kick him in face exactly 10 times. I didn’t look up whether or not he won an Oscar for this, but I have to assume that he did. I’m saying, Daniel Day-Lewis has won a Best Actor Oscar three times already, and he’s tried to kick precisely zero people in the face in his movies.
How Did He Do the Splits? By kicking.
Were There Any Props Used? No, just his snarl.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? Made a mean face.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? Walked away from the scene in (what was probably supposed to be) an effeminate manner.
What Was He Wearing? Regular clothes.
14. Black Eagle (1988)
Why Did He Do the Splits? To dodge a roundhouse kick. In Black Eagle, JCVD played a top-tier KGB member. He didn’t talk very much, but he did destroy a lot of bros, so I guess that’s pretty much a fair trade. Here, he was fighting Sho Kosugi, who was the star of the movie, even though I don’t think anybody knew he was supposed to be the star of the movie.
How Did He Do the Splits? He simply dropped down into them. JCVD often used the splits as an evasive maneuver. I trust that games of peek-a-boo with him go the same way, too: He probably looks at a baby, smiles, disappears out of site by dropping down into the splits, then pops back up and coos, “Peek-a-boo!” JCVD is the BEST dad.
Were There Any Props Used? No.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? Tried to kick someone in the head.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? Stood up, prepared to continue fighting.
What Was He Wearing? A suit.
13. Bloodsport — Meditation (1988)
Why Did He Do the Splits? As part of meditation, it looks like. Bloodsport had perhaps the highest splits-to-non-splits ratio ever. It is, to be clear, Van Damme’s most gorgeous stretch-symphony. And while this is certainly among the most poetic splits of JCVD’s career (and probably all of cinema), it’s also among the more pedestrian.
How Did He Do the Splits? We’re not shown.
Were There Any Props Used? Yes, all of Hong Kong.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? We’re not shown.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? We’re not shown.
What Was He Wearing? Karate pants.
12. Kickboxer — Stretched for Revenge (1989)
Why Did He Do the Splits? Because he wanted to avenge his brother’s paralysis. Kickboxer is the second-best movie in JCVD’s filmography, bowing only to the flawless Bloodsport. In it, he becomes a fighter after his brother, who’s already a professional fighter, is crippled by the venomous Tong Po, an utterly unlikable character pieced together from the scraps of litter in Satan’s gums.
How Did He Do the Splits? By getting stretched into them (something we’d seen the year prior in Bloodsport).
Were There Any Props Used? Ropes and whatnot.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? Thought, Whoops.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? Groaned.
What Was He Wearing? Clothes made from a tree, I think.
11. Double Team (1997)
Why Did He Do the Splits? Because he was breathing. Double Team (costarring Dennis Rodman, everyone!) is a great big ol’ poop. I imagine it was pretty hard to be Jean-Claude Van Damme around this point in his career. Still: “Splits are failing 19 times and succeeding the 20th.” Julie Andrews said that.
How Did He Do the Splits? Like if he was trying to figure out any way possible to keep the movie checks coming. “What’s that? They want me for what role? I’m gonna play a hero cop chasing my evil brother who’s also played by me, only he’s not a human, he’s a dog that talks? And I’m gonna have to do the splits with my legs resting on two small Puerto Rican children? … I’m in!”
Were There Any Props Used? A door jamb. (This wasn’t the only time he did the splits on a door jamb. Another time appears later here.)
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? Wither away.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? Still wither.
What Was He Wearing? Shorts so short it makes it basically impossible to avoid checking to see if his testicles were showing during the splits. : (
10. No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)
Why Did He Do the Splits? Because he wanted to pull off what has to be considered the most egregious, most glorious showboat move of all. Could you even imagine what’d happen if Tom Brady tossed a 52-yard touchdown bomb in the first game of the 2013 season and then, in lieu of his traditional fist pump, dropped down into the splits? The genitals of everyone on planet Earth would melt into oblivion, probably.
How Did He Do the Splits? By jumping up onto the middle ropes of a boxing ring and resting there.
Were There Any Props Used? A BOXING RING, BRO.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? He double-kicked a guy in the chest, knocking him out of the ring and probably out of life.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? HE CROSSED HIS MOTHEREFFING ARMS.
What Was He Wearing? Karate pants and a muscle shirt.
9. Replicant (2001)
Why Did He Do the Splits? Because he was bored. This is from Replicant, the second film in which Van Damme played two separate roles. Here, he is the good clone of a serial killer. I can tell you this much: If Clarice had been better at the splits, she wouldn’t have had such a hard time catching Hannibal Lecter.
How Did He Do the Splits? Like a gymnast.
Were There Any Props Used? No.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? Watched TV.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? Caught a serial killer.
What Was He Wearing? Clinic clothes.
8. Double Impact (1991)
Why Did He Do the Splits? Girls like the splits. This was at the beginning of Double Impact, where JCVD played dual roles, altering the trajectory of Hollywood special effects forever. It was a mostly listless film. (For nearly two decades, Lionheart, which was released in 1990, was Van Damme’s last undeniably tough-tits movie — though the audacity of 1993’s Hard Target certainly makes it an arguable case.) Still, this scene is monumental. Bro, do you even splits?
How Did He Do the Splits? In the way that only he can.
Were There Any Props Used? Do ladyboners count as props? Because there were certainly a bunch of those around.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? Tried to impregnate a woman with his eyes.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? Defended a karate student’s honor.
What Was He Wearing? Blue paint.
7. Black Eagle (1988)
Why Did He Do the Splits? Because he felt like it, that’s why. Again, he didn’t do a lot of talking, so he made up for it with moves like this. Like, OK, think of it like this: Let’s say you’re at a bar or something with your buddies. You’re having a good time and so on but then one of ’em comes back from the restroom like, “Yo, I’m about to fight this dude over here! Come watch my back.” You say, “Cool,” and then you follow behind him because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But then you get over there and there are two dudes: One who’s running his mouth at everyone and another one who’s completely quiet but is doing the splits on two barrels while throwing knives at the wall. Which one are you hoping he’s fighting?
How Did He Do the Splits? By getting up on two barrels.
Were There Any Props Used? OH MY GOD, YES. TWO BARRELS AND A FEW KNIVES.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? Not sure. We’re not shown. Were I to guess: He broke a board in half with a boner that he gave himself from being Jean-Claude Van Damme.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? STARTED THROWING KNIVES AT A WALL.
What Was He Wearing? Weird gray tights.
6. Timecop (1994)
Why Did He Do the Splits? To avoid getting Tasered to death. Timecop was for the birds, but this was an all-time Van Damme moment.
How Did He Do the Splits? By jumping up on a dishwasher.
Were There Any Props Used? Oh, um, I don’t know, JUST A DISHWASHER.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? Participated in a knife fight with an Asian man.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? Marveled, same as the rest of us.
What Was He Wearing? Boxers (or maybe panties, depending).
5. Bloodsport — Bamboo (1988)
Why Did He Do the Splits? Because his shidoshi told him to. Similar to the scene in Kickboxer, but this one lands eight spots higher because it got there first. You don’t get credit for discovering America twice.
How Did He Do the Splits? By hanging between two stalks of bamboo.
Were There Any Props Used? Bamboo and ropes and a shidoshi and a pulley system.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? Got tied up, probably while asking something like, “You sure about this, shidoshi?”
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? Stunt. Stop the video at 1:03. Total stunt face.
What Was He Wearing: A karate gi.
4. Kickboxer — For the Ladies (1989)
Why Did He Do the Splits? Because he was trying to impress women, and the best way to impress women is always to do the splits. When I asked my wife to marry me, rather than get down on one knee, I dropped down into the splits. It was basically the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for her, she said.
How Did He Do the Splits? With an extra-special vigor.
Were There Any Props Used? Two thin Thai women.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? A clap, then a pelvic hunch.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? Jumped up, shook his butt, then repeated the process. This move was the closest we had to in vitro fertilization in the ’80s. [Editor’s note: The first “test tube” baby was born in 1978.] A woman would go to the OB/GYN, the OB/GYN would tell her that she was incapable of having babies, but there was one form of treatment that could help: a Van Dammization. The OB/GYN would open the door, whistle, then Jean-Claude Van Damme would walk into the office, do the splits, shake his butt, do the split again, and then leave. The OB/GYN would say, “Congrats.” Then the previously infertile woman would stand up and 50 babies would fall out of her and do the splits. That’s a little thing called a holy miracle.
What Was He Wearing? Dockers and (I think) a snap-on onesie that a toddler would wear.
3. Bloodsport — Kumite Prep (1988)
Why Did He Do the Splits? Because he was getting prepared to fight in the Kumite, the most brutal and unforgiving competition in history. This one, while at least slightly similar to the meditation splits he does at no. 13, stretches itself all the way up to the no. 3 spot because of its own iconography. The chair splits have become a seminal scene in karate-movie history.
How Did He Do the Splits? By popping up onto two chairs.
Were There Any Props Used? Two chairs.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? Who knows??
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? Flashed the most adorable smile.
What Was He Wearing? Sweatpants.
2. Cyborg (1989)
Why Did He Do the Splits? He was trying to hide and kill* postapocalyptic pirates. Cyborg was dark and dirty and unsettling. These were the most intense splits that had ever been attempted.
*In fact, JCVD was so adept at this that, while sparring with one of the main villains’ henchmen during filming, he managed to dead one of said henchman’s eyes when he “accidentally” struck him with a simple prop knife. THIS FOOL WAS TAKING OUT EYES WITH A FAKE KNIFE JUST FOR FUN. THAT’S THE MOST PLAYER SHIT OF ALL.
How Did He Do the Splits? By climbing up on top of two pillars.
Were There Any Props Used? A door jamb (for the splits) and a large, large knife (for the killing).
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? He killed a guy.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? Nothing.
What Was He Wearing? Ratty future clothes. The future always looks so awful in these sorts of movies.
1. Bloodsport — The Greatest Splits of All (1988)
Why Did He Do the Splits: Because he was about to be pummeled by a man who he’d already seen squeeze the life out of someone else.* “Necessity is the mother of splits” is how that saying goes. If you’ll remember, he actually did the splits twice during this fight. This one rates first because the other time was the result of JCVD getting dragged around by his leg. Here, though, he is on the attack. Every single thing about this, from the camera work to the way Van Damme synthesizes the response, is perfect.
*Specifically, the guy who pretended like he was a monkey. What an awful idea that was. “Hmmm, I have to battle in a deadly underground global fight tournament. And I’m considerably smaller and weaker than basically everyone else involved. How can I win this whole thing? … OH! GOT IT! I’ll just bounce my bitch-ass around like a lemur!” Fool. His death was his own fault.
How Did He Do the Splits? As God intended him to.
Were There Any Props Used? No. No trickery here. This is the purest snow.
What Did He Do Immediately Before the Splits? He delivered a MEGA-uppercut to his opponent’s shrimp roll.
What Did He Do Immediately After the Splits? Tipped over a mountain with his fingertips.
What Was He Wearing? The most rad fighting uniform.