Why the Jean-Claude Van Damme Volvo Ad Moves Us

(Volvo Trucks)

The Jean-Claude Van Damme Volvo commercial of JCVD doing “the epic split” between two moving trucks has received more than 28 million views in just 5 days (and deservedly so). It is everything the best ads aspire to be in both conception and execution and is one of those occasions in which the medium is elevated into genuine art. And while various commentators have begun analyzing this ad from the perspectives of business, media and marketing, I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective. That is the perspective of myth.

Many viewers have expressed being moved by Volvo’s ad in ways that perhaps elude quick and easy understanding at the conscious level. I mean, it’s just Jean Claude Van Damme doing the splits, right? We’ve seen him do the splits a million times! Why is that making us watery-eyed?

There’s a reason viewers were so moved en masse and it’s not just the presence of Enya’s ethereal voice. It’s because this very short video – short filmmaking at its best, actually – very intentionally uses numerous elements to touch some very human and universal themes that involve us all, themes that, as I will argue, have their corresponding roots in myth.

From the very first frame we see that this is going to be a very personal work of art (yes, art). For Volvo it’s simply another great ad. But for Van Damme it’s one of the most personal statements he’s made on film beside his performance in JCVD.

The video opens with a medium shot of the actor with eyes closed in meditative repose, arms folded in defiant strength. For those of us who grew up watching his movies, his face is somewhat the worse for wear, carved as it is by the lines and erosion of time. But contrasted by his unperturbed expression, there is a certain beauty to this image. In the background we see the sun setting. It is the “golden hour,” that slim window of time coveted by filmmakers in which everything is coated with an evocative glow. But there’s another reason that the setting sun is in the shot. It is meant to symbolize the twilight of life itself, those “golden years” when we are resting and retreating from activity.

In the background we hear Enya’s “Only Time” and that, too, is a carefully chosen element. In the first few seconds the inexorable passing of time is already established as a primary theme.

For celebrities, especially action movie stars, often the golden years can hit earlier than for the rest of us. At 52, Van Damme is well past the age when many of his peers are already considered old men, has-beens and washouts. He himself has been called all of those things and has been the frequent butt of jokes.

Words then come in to accompany image:

“I’ve had my ups and downs. My fair share of bumpy roads and heavy winds. That’s what made me what I am today.”

Right away, the portrait that’s being painted is of a man who has not been defeated by age, time and the vicissitudes of fortune but who has been made what he is by those very things – stronger, wiser, better. Fan and non-fan alike are hooked at this point for the themes being conjured are deep, timeless, mythical ones that transcend personal tastes and any individual celebrity or company. As the camera tracks back, the voiceover continues:

“Now I stand here before you. What you see is a body crafted to perfection…”

And we all know what happens next.

Very crudely speaking, there are two kinds of people: those who criticize, complain and spew bitterness while doing very little and those busy with the task of bettering themselves in some way. Now, I’ve never cared much about the details of celebrities’ lives so I’m not too familiar with the personal drama and foibles of Van Damme’s past. All I know is that there is something clearly evident to me in this short video and it is this: much like Volvo itself, this is a man who at this moment is committed to the ethic of never-ending self-betterment, age be damned.

There is no way that you can attain that kind of physique and remain so supple and strong at age 52 without herculean effort and discipline. I don’t know to what degree, if any, Van Damme has worked to improve himself as a person in recent years, but I do know one thing from experience: you cannot commit yourself to such long-term, excruciating labor without the process itself fundamentally altering your mind as well.

For the sake of space, I won’t go too deeply into all the mythical themes that I see being evoked in this ad, but I will briefly say that one of the things I see is the classic struggle between Saturnian and Uranian energies (in Greco-Roman myth, Ouranos and Saturn were father and son in conflict, a classic mythical theme in itself). Saturn symbolizes time, transition, slowness, decrepitude and death. Uranus symbolizes passion, inspiration, drive, exploration and self-expression. Neither is good or bad in itself, but overemphasis on one leads to imbalance.

Traditionally, the societal pressure that comes with age is to increasingly settle and become inert, and conventional wisdom dictates that if you’re not ready to settle Time itself will force you to do so by stripping your body of vitality and vigor (for some of us this happens irrespective of age, due to illness for instance). We see the Uranian tendency rebel against this in the phenomenon known as the midlife crisis in which people try to reinvent and rebirth themselves in flashy, instantaneous ways that do no real good in the long run.

“The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn” (Giorgio Vasari / Palazzo Vecchio)

What is the balance? The balance is honoring both gods, Saturn and Uranus, with impassioned but slow, methodical, dedicated labor – the kind that over time can lead to a “a body crafted to perfection.” The problem is this is exceedingly difficult and people do not have the patience for it and hence we see more of the polar extremes of midlife crises vs. inertia and complacence.

There are other subtle mythical elements that I see here related to a phoenix-like death and resurrection and the Return to Paradise or return to a state of grace. But I’ll spare you any further indulgence of my obsession with myth and wrap this up.

To summarize, here are the themes the Volvo ad evokes and why many of us find ourselves being, perhaps to our own puzzlement, so moved by it:

• It stirs in us the belief and desire that we all can face life’s “bumpy roads and heavy winds” with grace and fortitude and remain standing strong.

• We all have periods of “falling from grace,” of being “exiled from Eden.” We want to believe that we can return to that previous state of glory. Visually and symbolically (though not necessarily consciously), the video evokes this as well.

• Simply witnessing complete and utter commitment to excellence in anything is moving because it is so rare and difficult. And here in this short video we witness utter commitment to excellence from three different sides –  a manufacturing company, an aging celebrity, and a film crew commissioned for the ad.

Though very little of it happens consciously, part of the reason we become so enamored of artists, celebrities and performers is that their works often enact certain mythical rites of passage for us in public view, allowing us to vicariously participate in those rites of passages.

(Volvo Trucks / Folke Film)

In just 1 minute and 17 seconds, Volvo has created a symbolic enactment of mythical themes that is all the more effective for its brevity, simplicity and directness. Yes, while setting up the stunt they applied the same kind of safety protocols used in big budget Hollywood stunts. Yes, it’s an ad with commercial aims. Neither of these things detracts from the abstract power of the mythical elements being played.

As for Van Damme, in this short little video he has delivered one of the performance of his life (equaled only by his fourth wall-breaking monologue in JCVD) and I say that with zero sarcasm. If the phenomenal popularity of this ad jump-starts his career he has earned it.

As you watch this ad try to put aside whatever you may personally think of this man as an actor and/or martial artist (or of Volvo as a company). The man in this video is simply a symbol, a stand-in for a struggle of opposing forces of nature (Uranus and Saturn) that sooner or later affect us all. And if, when that time comes, we can balance those two forces half as gracefully as he does, hanging there so cool like that between those trucks, then we will be realizing one of the great ideals of timeless myth.

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts on this!

  2. THANK YOU! your article is incredibly brilliant and true.

  3. Thank you for your thoughts, you hit the nail right on the head. I have viewed this ad hundreds of times, for the plain sake of absorbing the sense of inspiration you so brilliantly describe. I’m 5 years younger then JCVD, my body is broken and partially artificial because of it. What he did there, has given me almost an unlimited amount of energy. Yes we ol’ men still can do and will do! This ad is a true homage on all things life, you endure, you work harder than hard, than you will see the one sun set we all crave for! Foremost as he said, you see a pair of engineered legs, capable to defy the laws of physics!

    • Dear Mr. Brunke: Because of the sincerity in your comment I’m going to share something with you I don’t usually just share with anyone. You say your body is broken though you are 5 years younger than JCVD. I am much younger still than you and my body too is partially broken and ill. It wasn’t always like that. It used to be healthy and strong. I used to lift weights at the gym 4-5 times a week. Something happened, though, a long storywhich I can’t get into here. But I am *committed* to not letting this stop me from being who and what I choose to be, nor from recovering my former state of health.

      And this is also partly why whenever I see such a model specimen of fitness and health like JCVD it is a moving and beautiful sight. The body is capable of remarkable things if we only give it what it needs. You and I didn’t get this way overnight and neither did JCVD get the way he is now overnight. It takes long, disciplined, almost dishearteningly difficult work to rebuild the body back to a state of health. But if we focus on doing what we need to do and just putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to indulge in self-pity and the like, we can once again, at least partially, recover the joy of good health.

      Thank you for the honor of reading my post and for understanding it on a level that many cannot. I wish you courage and strength on your heroic journey.

    • Dear PopMtyh,
      Thank you very much for your reply. I too was a sportster through and through, parts my service in military required it, part was me, because I loved the gym. I loved working iron, without helper, hard, dreadful work, but it taught me diligence. Then one day it happened..I ruptured my meniscus and I underestimate of what you so perfectly described. I didn’t give my body what it needed, with the result that today, I’m not fat, I’m not dwelled in self pity, but I’ve got two artificial knees…because I didn’t give my body what it needed back when. Is it stopping me from moving forward? No, it ain’t and it won’t, but to have had the privilege of reading your commentary and response in describing what diligence and endurance does, gives me the food I need in order to keep on moving, because I know I’m moving in the right direction. The message JCVD and the team who recorded this ad, might be “only” 77 seconds long, for me, enough to consider it the one eternity we people should aim for!

      Again thank you for the privilege of your response.


    • Thank you for sharing.

    • well said. thank you 🙂

  4. JCVD is in all our hearts we still wait for his EPIC COMEBACK ~!

  5. Lovely data collation, great article and presentation. Keep it on….

  6. you’ve captured so eloquently why this ad moves me. to tears. every. single. time. i. watch. it.

    which is probably 10+ times a day for the past 3 days!

  7. Anthony W. Sellers

    Exceptional article. Well-written and quite insightful. I’m sure JCVD loves this. Thank you for giving it to us.

  8. Sofia Chubenko Tereshchenko

    What a great article!!! Thank you for your brilliant description, you took the words out of my mouth, I agree with you in all levels! Sharing!

  9. Just a note; he turned 53 before this ad.

  10. JCVD has been epic in everything he does. He is the muscles from Brussels….eat that Steven Seagal……….

  11. I am floored by your take on this amazing piece of Art by Volvo and JCVD. I think the most powerful aspect, the one thing that REALLY draws the viewer into the idea that JCVD is trying to impart to us is the voice of Enya..it is truly mythical in sound and is the perfect companion piece to this commercial. Since the first time i watched this it has stuck in my head..i couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but i knew it was something important..even as a long time fan of JCVD, this went deeper then that..your thoughts on this have absolutely opened my eyes to WHY i feel such emotion when watching this. I too have physical limitations, limitations that i struggle daily with to overcome, and i am only 36 yrs old, but even at 36 i fear age because i think to myself, if i am like this now, how bad will it be in 10 yrs..20 yrs? The idea that no matter how bad it gets, we can overcome and achieve a sense of perfection is a powerful thought process that he (and Volvo of course) is trying to get across to us in this ad, a thought process i feel i need to adopt in order to conquer my fear…JCVD is an inspiration and this commercial to me is a testament to the man’s Iron Will, strength of character, and never give-up attitude. Thank you SO much for sharing your thoughts on this, i found them very enlightening and they put into words the feelings i had while watching this. Cheers mate!

    • @stevewyton:disqus I could’ve sworn that I had responded to your comment before but I was just looking now and didn’t see anything (hmm, perhaps my memory’s already fading too?) Anyway, what a wonderful comment it is. Thank you so much for not only taking the time to read the post but to leave this moving and inspired comment. Comments like these are why I do what I do and work so hard to keep this webzine alive. I am glad this short film has also been able to inspire you the way it has for me, and I hope you will always find inspiration from this and other sources to never give up no matter how bad it gets (as you say) and to overcome and achieve. Keep on trucking! (haha, get it, “trucking”?)

  12. Because of his big legs, and karate, he can do the splits no…prob….

    • Yes, but it’s not easy to maintain such flexibility and strength in older age. Also doing the splits on the ground is one thing. Doing the splits with only your feet on a surface (a moving surface!) is another thing! 🙂

  13. Great read, it’s nice to see an educated article on the man.

    For me, the emotion was due to the fact that I felt so proud of JCVD, also relief that those who have forgotten him or just written him off will see how amazing he really is. Also, seeing him in the full splits reminded me of a good time in my life, as a young boy watching No Retreat, No Surrender with my brother. It really did make my hairs stand on end and my eyes water.

    • Hi, Peter. I think it’s all well and proper for fans to feel a surge of pride as they watch this video. I felt proud of the man too, and this is coming from someone who, as an adult, hasn’t really been that much of a fan except for when I was a kid growing up who used to watch all his movies. But the greatness he has demonstrated in this video is something that humanity, in general, is capable of. So I like to go further and say that watching this video just makes me proud of humanity in general. We can be so terribly flawed and weak but also capable of such beauty and strength.

  14. Very Nice article. I Enjoyed it, and agree with much of your philosophy’s.. We Allow Time to defeat us, because we are told it will all our lives. By Doctors, Workplace, Community Etc.. But There is so much proof out there that TIME is relative, and Just a Number.. A Number that WE can atleast to some degree control in respects of our bodies and mind. But That said, For Clarity’s sake, I must correct 2 mistakes you made in your analogy.. The piece was filmed in a 15 minute window in the early Morning of spain, Not at Sunset. The sun was clearly Rising over some distant Mountains during the shoot. Also.. Less Important, But still a Fact. JCVD recently Turned 53, He is not 52. 🙂

    • Yes, we are told all our lives that time will defeat us and life itself becomes like a dreaded countdown. Of course I respect nature and the natural ebb and flow of energy. And there are seasons and cycles to our lives just as in the earth itself which we are just a part of, after all. But the degree of choice that we do have in the matter isn’t given its due.

      As for the sunrise correction, haha, yes, you’re the third person to correct me on this today. Thank you. As for my thoughts on what, if anything, that difference does to the basic meaning of the video (for me, anyway), please see my response to reader Brian Waas’ nice comment elsewhere in this comment area.

  15. excellent explanation and I agree 100% with you…thanks for sharing your thoughts and knowledge….

  16. Just a little correction here, though… in a write-up on the filming, I read that they actually got this on the 5th or 6th take at 8am in the morning. That isn’t a sunset – it’s a sunrise.

    • @disqus_qAHc3Lp0Oi:disqus, yes, I just found that out from the comment by @brianwaas:disqus above. Thank you, though. Please see my response to Brian if you’re curious about my take on the sunrise/sunset duality.

  17. Nice article, but a few points were off as well as some extra info they pointed out as having not known.
    the commercial actually occurs at sunrise (airstrip in spain)
    as for his bumpy roads, he is referring to his past fight with addiction both with cocaine, and with the Hollywood lifestyle of glamour, which invariably caused his divorce, which he went back and reconnected with his wife and now their back together.
    He really has had a hard time. he was blacklisted in Hollywood for decades due to his behavior for a while, he has since cleaned up rly well, regained a portion of his fame and is now on the fast track back into the mainstream. as much as the major Hollywood producers dislike.. they still don’t like him because he wont kiss ass, but his fame over rides their petty issues. that has never stopped him though, he has been making movies steady for a long while, but most of them overseas, so you don’t hear about them in America unless you hunt for them. like “JCVD (the film)”, that was mostly done IN Brussels. (frankly the fight scene at the beginning is the most drawn out, fantastic looking scene these eyes have ever witnessed)
    Hes a swell guy though, and deserves to be lauded with some praise, hes earned it.

    • @brianwaas:disqus hi, thank you for the correction. Personally, though, it doesn’t change anything for me, and I still stand by everything I’ve said in the post, especially the ultimate message of it. To me, the symbolic themes of death and rebirth (which I very briefly mention in the later part of the post) are so connected they are virtually one and the same. The sunrise simply emphasizes the “rebirth” aspect of it. It is a new beginning. But for new beginnings to occur, there must be a death of the old. I still see the same basic themes running through and interwoven in this beautiful commercial.

      I also appreciate your thoughts on JCVD’s career and on his past and current experiences in Hollywood. It was interesting to read. If it is true that he has cleaned up really well, then I find this ad all the more meaningful and resonant. As I said, I don’t really keep up well with certain aspects of entertainment news, and for me personally it was not necessary to know the details to be inspired by the ad. Thanks again.

    • @brianwaas:disqus hi, thank you for the correction. Personally, though, it doesn’t change anything for me, and I still stand by everything I’ve said in the post, especially the ultimate message of it. To me, the symbolic themes of death and rebirth (which I very briefly mention in the later part of the post) are so connected they are virtually one and the same. The sunrise simply emphasizes the “rebirth” aspect of it. It is a new beginning. But for new beginnings to occur, there must be a death of the old. This is the true meaning of Ouroboros, a symbol which I believe is often misinterpreted as purely representing “infinity.” It is self-initiated death and rebirth in which the distinction between the two are gone.

      I also appreciate your thoughts on JCVD’s career and on his past and current experiences in Hollywood. It was interesting to read. If it is true that he has cleaned up really well, then I find this ad all the more meaningful and resonant. As I said, I don’t really keep up well with certain aspects of entertainment news, and for me personally it was not necessary to know the details to be inspired by the ad. Thanks again.

  18. I see your very interesting analysis of the commercial … I can say that I had some unusual thoughts. Very cool your text.

  19. Ricardo González Candia

    Awesome article!!! Super well done my friend! A very big fan of Joe Campbell ain’t you? Same here! 😀 It was a great pleasure to read it! THANK YOU!!!

  20. Yeah, fine, but his GoDaddy commercials do all of this and make us laugh, too. 😉

  21. An interesting thing to note here is that the transcendent qualities of this film leave the commercial behind, which also suggests that there is an alternative to mortality.

  22. I would really like to see someone take out the Enya track and put in ACDC’s “Black in Black” (they’d have to loop the intro to allow JCVD to speak) and see how the ad works then. Perhaps try a few different songs, but the point is to see how the music would change the whole feel of the ad. But more importantly, to make it clear how appropriate a choice Enya’s song is.

    • @beaumontmiles:disqus Music is of course very, very important, yes. I often listen to the orchestral scores of my favorite films (for example, “The Dark Knight” scores by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard) and wonder how different the films might have felt had the score not been as good or were composed by a different composer (say like John Williams or Danny Elfman). When music and image and dialogue all come together in a way that work, the result can be marvelous.

  23. Great article 🙂 but he’s 53 years old, and not as young as 52 😉

  24. Jonathan Edward Brown

    This is a really nice write up Daniel. Your commitment to your readers in the commentary is commendable. Your openness and honesty is twice as moving to me as the ad which served as inspiration. So cool that JCVD has seen the piece. Congratulations on a really nice post.

  25. I am speechless. This ad is the mother of all ads. My eyes are wet. Thank you for this piece of art!!!!!

  26. Wonderfully written article.

  27. Congrats Daniel on a great analysis and I’m as equally impressed by the reaction it’s getting.

    One thing I love about the ad is how it begins: JCVD eyes are closed and then he opens them. Doesn’t this remind you of the scene in The Matrix when Neo does the same thing when he is reborn?

    • Thanks, @derekbacharach:disqus. I really like how the ad begins too. Right away, it establishes that feeling of serenity. And rebirth, yes – a timeless theme that reappears in many great works. Most recently “Gravity,” for instance.

  28. I can do that too.

  29. A very revealing and “epic” article, if you allow me the joke. One thing: People keep pointing out that what we see is a sunrise and not a sunset, but then let me add that the trucks are moving backwards, and not forwards, so it’s the whole time-frame that is been twisted around, to make it possible to return to that previous state of glory and that desired rebirth. For me it’s like, in a symbolic fashion, it’s not that JCVD performs a split moving backwards at sunrise, but it is because he is able to perform that split, at that age, that the trucks move backwards and that the sun can rise 😉

    • Hi @a98318592b733d5f3dfe8161c1e198f5:disqus that’s a very interesting interpretation, thank you. And it’s quite a lovely thought too. Of course, on a technical level we know that Volvo chose to shoot the trucks going backwards to demonstrate the precision in steering, but as I always say the creative intent is one thing, the artistic result can be another thing and we are free to interpret this as we feel makes sense. And your analysis does make sense.

  30. Chills, baby, chills.

  31. Very nice article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.