Late in his new series Jean-Claude Van Johnson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, in tailored suit and open-collared white shirt, gestures up from his Aston Martin to his secret hideout with the instantly classic setup line, “No one has looked for me here for 20 years.” It’s a Blockbuster Video. As always, Van Damme is “on the run from the law, military or mafia,” but just this once, perfectly on the nose with this quip. And with it, three wildly different cultural icons, Van Damme, the tailored suit and Aston Martin, come into a strange but telling momentary alignment from the vastly different places they were in those 20 years ago.
20 years ago Van Damme was just over the peak of his fame, a coked-up Belgian kickboxing force who was fresh off The Quest, a big-budget, less satisfying remake of Van Damme’s best film, Bloodsport. He was about to star in a film about exploding jeans with the SNL copier guy Rob Schneider. Even better than it sounds, Knock Off knocked Van Damme off his pedestal and into the direct-to-video purgatory in which he’s labored since then. And labor he has, dedicated to actually becoming an actor of range and depth despite none of his audience actually caring. Direct-to-video films generally get ignored. Popularly, we expect them mainly to be watched by fans of fading stars expecting the predictable. It’s poignant, then, that Van Damme turned in a convincing performance in a pastiche of Bad Lieutenant and showed he could telegraph real pathos in John Hyams’ unfathomably good DTV Universal Soldier sequels Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.
Van Damme didn’t have to expend that effort. Witness the trajectory of his erstwhile rival Steven Seagal, a trajectory of almost cosmological increasing expansion behind yellow-tinted shooting glasses and spray-on-hair, accommodated in dozens of unwatchable movies by screenplays and direction that allow Seagal literally not to move. Seagal’s kept his many-chinned profile up in recent years courting tinpot authoritarians in the United States and Eastern Europe. Unlike Seagal, in recent years Van Damme has gained attention and respect by embracing his own ridiculousness. He played up this self-awareness with surprising comedic and dramatic talent in 2009’s JCVD, a scathing satire of his own dead-end career and broken life. He brings this willingness to both mock and explore himself to Jean-Claude Van Johnson, where he plays a retired actor who is actually a retired spy. Shoots for cheesy movies in Eastern Europe, such as a chop-socky reboot of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (“It’s time to get Hucked”), are just covers to investigate and infiltrate drug gangs, diabolical masterminds, and eventually the rotten entertainment industry itself.
The key to that last mission, taking down the corrupt talent and espionage agency that had used him, is looking the part, 2017 edition. Looking a part means meeting all the clichés, the easy expectations of a role. For that of Erstwhile Movie Star, today it means pulling up to the agency in an Aston Martin in a tailored suit, no tie. It certainly didn’t always. 20 years ago, Aston Martin had nowhere to go but up, or into oblivion. Since then, oblivion has claimed most of the other romantically exotic British car brands like TVR and Bristol. Aston used to mean just Bond films, Bond satires, and bad Bond copies. By the early 1990s, its annual sales had slumped to fewer than 200 cars worldwide and its main model, the Virage, cost $250,000. I’ve only seen one of those ever, late at night in my college town decades ago, looking like something from another world.
Today, thanks to prudent investment and positioning by Ford and Tata, Astons are a shorthand for the showbizzy glitterati of our world, occasionally favoring us with an appearance in our grocery store parking lot or, with motor gunning, running the red light we’d prudently braked for. Hugh Grant bought one after filming About A Boy because his tween co-star thought it would be cool; Isla Fisher drove one playing Ron Howard’s vapid daughter in Arrested Development. Van Damme’s Aston is the same sort of shorthand: predictable, expensive flamboyance to be expected from a has-been with money.
What does this mean for the suit? 20 years ago it was in the wilderness, a wilderness grown out of the backlash to 1980s corporatism, a wilderness so wild that for a few seasons designers were trying to put men in waistcoats, frock coats or Nehru jackets instead of sport coats or suits. Those didn’t take, but for the rest of us casualwear replaced the suit with identikit billowing blue shirts and baggy khakis in business settings, and with jeans, sweats or anything else, really, in other settings. 20 years ago the suit had just barely begun to creep back in certain circles in the United Kingdom as a so-called smart formal outfit for social outings, with a nice shirt but never a tie. It was too soon for that reminder of 1980s correctness. Since that time, Hedi Slimane goosed the “tailored look” with his tight suits, while fashion seized on the financial crises of 2001 and 2008 to push a return to supposedly more serious dressing. In the fashion idiom, the opposite of frivolity is expensive conservatism, ergo the suit. The tie, too, fought its way back up for a couple of years of air, but not in the world of cliché and shorthand, where smart actor of a certain age means nice suit, white shirt (anything else would be too busy) and no tie – no ties to the normal working world.
Today, Van Damme, Aston Martin and the smart suit are in alignment, all in fashion again… for the moment. Whether Aston Martin stays in fashion will depend on its owners and backers keeping technologically modern cars in production and promoting them. As to Van Damme and the suit? It’s just as ironically sad as Van Damme becoming a good actor that the suit, formerly the inescapable classic clothing item, returned only as a fashion item. This means that it can and will be replaced by something else in fashion, like yoga pants for men. Maybe Van Damme, too, is only having a moment as a whimsical nostalgia item like the suit.
But Jean-Claude Van Johnson has a real lesson for us beyond this sentimentality. Although it is about an actor who is actually an international spy, its reality is an actor playing his persona and pretending to find himself. His choices are to hide from the world behind cabinets of Pop Tarts and made-up memories, or to engage with the uncanny and unfair demands of an unfamiliar age. He chooses to engage, despite his heyday being long behind him and the things that he had fought for illusory. Remember that in fact there was no more genteel age of yore, only pasts of different levels of exploitation and oligarchy. The classy actors we now associate with elegance were actors playing parts, both on screen and in public life. No halcyon days await our return. However we adapt to changing times and changing understandings of what is right, ultimately we can best face down challenging times by being ourselves in the moment. Or as Van Damme-from-the-future reminds us, “TimeCops don’t exist.” We cannot change the timestream to fit our illusions. We can only do with what we have: our personality, not our persona, and from time to time, still, a nice suit as both armor and disguise.