Martial Arts star Van Damme can tickle ribs, too

MovieClub: September 4, 1998

Interview by Dixie Reid (Staff Writer)

Jean-Claude Van Damme called from the limousine taking him to Planet Hollywood from San Francisco International. He'd just arrived from Los Angeles, where he lives, to begin a publicity tour for the movie, "Knock Off." It opens today. (The movie was not screened in advance for critics.)

It's another martial arts action flick, but Van Damme said this one is different: It's funny. And he says he's a kind of funny guy.

"Heh-heh-heh, I think so," he said. "You have to spend time with me to find out. I have made so many movies where I portray macho, and this one is comedy, too."

Given his bad-boy image in the press, and the fact that he's a walking, talking lethal weapon, Van Damme sounded sweet-natured during the brief interview.

He laid out the plot of "Knock Off," which is set in, and was filmed during, the July 1997 transition of Hong Kong from British rule back to the Chinese:

"Marcus Ray (his character) is living the good life in Hong Kong, working as a sales representative for V SIX Jeans. As the city in transition falls around him, Marcus will be caught in a huge conspiracy with the Russian mafia. They use the buttons of our jeans for their mini bombs, which will be activated via satellite. And we export those jeans all over the world. So there is great danger everywhere."

Meanwhile, the company's international sales executive (played by Lela Rochon) discovers that somebody is manufacturing cheap knockoffs of their jeans. She suspects Ray and another sales rep, Tommy Hendricks (Rob Schneider.) Turns out, she's a CIA agent and so is Hendricks. Then they discover that the bad guys are planting the button bombs, and the plot thickens.

"It's a good story," Van Damme said. "It has comedy and action and the colors of Hong Kong. The look is huge, because Hong Kong is like 'Blade Runner' in the '90s. It's something different."

Van Damme turns 38 in October but he's far from retiring as a martial arts movie star.

"Now, I'm OK. I'm training a lot so I can keep in shape. Two to three hours a day. You have to," he said. "When I make a movie, it's less. More like maintenance. If I don't train when I come back from the set -- I'm very exhausted and don't want to go to the gym; I want to go to bed -- then the next day I feel worse."

He was born in Belgium and enrolled in ballet classes as a boy. He took up karate after turning down a chance to dance with the Paris Opera. He thinks his graceful fighting style distinguishes him from other martial arts movie stars such as Jackie Chan and Steven Seagal.

"We all have a specialty," he said.

Van Damme grew up to be big, strong and handsome, a look that's served him well on the action-movie marquee. He left home for Hong Kong at age 19 to try breaking into the film industry there. When it didn't work out, he moved to Southern California in 1982, and studied English while working as a bouncer, carpet-layer and personal trainer.

One night, he showed off his fighting skills outside a Hollywood restaurant. A movie executive in the crowd offered him a part in the 1987 action-thriller "Bloodsport."

He's since kicked his way across Hollywood -- in "Cyborg," "Double Impact," "Universal Soldier," "Nowhere To Run," "Hard Target" (directed by John Woo), "Street Fighter," "Sudden Death," "The Quest" (which he wrote and directed), "Double Team," "Maximum Risk," and his big box-office success, "Timecop," in 1994.

Van Damme's personal life has been almost as action-packed. He left wife No. 3, Gladys Portugues, with whom he had two children, and married Darcy LaPier. He and LaPier divorced their respective spouses and wed, and then Van Damme sued her for divorce, claiming that he didn't father her son. Meanwhile, Van Damme went into drug rehab.

"It was cocaine," he said the other day. "I was crazy. I was having some problems with my private life, marriages and everything."

He's single again and said he's spending time with Gladys and their kids. As for life in front of the camera, he recently completed two more action thrillers: "Inferno," filmed in the Mojave Desert, and "Legionnaire," shot in Morocco.

As the limousine neared Planet Hollywood, where Van Damme would deliver a pair of V SIX Jeans for the restaurant's memorabilia collection, he said he has high hopes for "Knock Off."

"I think it will do great because there's lots of physical action, which in the summer we saw lots of, but they were full of explosions, and that's why I believe 'Blade' (Wesley Snipes' current movie) did so well. It's physical," he said. "Ours has a good story and plot, and it's funny, like a 'Lethal Weapon' in Hong Kong."

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