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Jean-Claude Van Damme
is a hero again in JCVD

March 5, 2009

JEAN-CLAUDE Van Damme's career was very dead, but a surprise hit has the Muscles from Brussels alive and kicking. WARNING: THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW MAY CONFUSE.

The Belgian — aka the Muscles from Brussels, star of such '90s action fare as Timecop, Street Fighter and Universal Soldier — is getting his career back on track.

But keeping an interview with him on the rails is more difficult than any big-screen comeback.

He follows no logic, answers his own version of your question, if not a different question altogether, and is prone to drifting off.

He says "you know what I mean?" at the end of a lot of his sentences, and mostly you're left thinking, "Errr, actually, no".

But back to that comeback: "I have to be very careful for my next movie," he says.

And so he haphazardly starts to paint us a picture of his next movie.

An eagle is his friend. In Thailand. There are Russian and Bulgarian girls — "very difficult to cast".

There are human friends who will help him, "and they're going to die for it, some of them".

There's something about a white rose, a temple of business, a flashback to some mentally scarring incident when he was eight, a woman who "will trash my life, and I will react very crazy", and a scene that will stun everyone: "you never saw a shot like that in the history of cinema".

"So the movie is like the Casablanca of 2009 with a lot of class . . ."

OK, he's not so much outlining the plot as he is giving away every detail. Luckily for Van Damme, it's easy to come away from his description of this film he has written and directed, The Eagle Path, still having no clue as to what it's about.

"The way I'm telling you the story, I'm giving you all the story, you have to be careful," he says after spilling it all.

"But do me a favour, I mean, you will hurt me so much and I won't know what to do. I will do anything for you if you don't talk too much about the story."

Van Damme is adamant that the film will show, and succeed, at Cannes in mid-May.

He claims he's spent the past four months editing it.

"I worked for 20 hours cutting a day," he says. "Really, I didn't stop cutting for four months the movie, because I have to make Cannes, you know what I'm saying?"

If The Eagle Path does show at Cannes, it is down to one thing: JCVD.

Just as The Wrestler propelled Mickey Rourke from has-been to rehab-ed hero, JCVD has revived the fortunes of Van Damme, who has battled cocaine addiction, gone through wives like Liz Taylor went through husbands, lost contact with his children, been arrested for drink-driving, and suffered the indignity of most of his films this decade going straight to DVD.

JCVD is such a revelation because it blends this not-at-all-glamorous reality with fiction — Van Damme plays himself as a washed-up actor, losing his daughter in a custody hearing and losing movie roles to rival action beefcake Steven Seagal (there's no arguing when Seagal promises to cut off his ponytail for the part).

Broke, burnt out and back in Belgium, our hero goes to the post office to withdraw some money, only to find himself caught up in a hostage crisis — which the cops believe is his doing.

"Did you like it?" Van Damme asks.

As he talks he is — in real life, this is — in Belgium, in a hotel room apparently filled with mates.

They must have been partying all night, because Van Damme eventually reveals he's had an hour's sleep.

"When I opened myself, how did you see that?"

He's not lying about opening himself up — at one point in JCVD, Van Damme floats up and away from the action to deliver a long and moving monologue about everything that has gone wrong in his life.

It ends with him crying and shouting as he asks what he has done on this earth: "Nothing! I have done nothing!"

"I was very ashamed of myself," Van Damme says of the first time he saw the scene played back.

"Like, wow, I was too open to the public. But you know what? That scene, it came from something deep."

The shame didn't last — now he believes it's what people want from him.

"In JCVD I opened my soul so much, you know. People, they like to see me suffering in a sense, right? When you saw me in the movie, it felt sad for you, right? But at the same time it was enjoyable to see a man opening himself that much.

"So there are two sides of the story

— one my side, and the other side the public. This public, they want to see me strong, my action side. So we've made a movie (The Eagle Path) now with a lot of action, but not that much, but strong, real, with my age — I'm now 48. I don't fight like a clown any more, it's important to make it real."

It remains to be seen how much "realness" he'll fit into his next few films, which appear to be a rash of action sequels: he's back in training for another Universal Soldier film with Dolph Lundgren, and there's talk of revisiting Timecop and Bloodsport.

And with The Eagle Path, he plans to kick-start his own low-cost, good-returns business.

"I am back in my old-fashioned way," he says. "Now I'm talking like a businessman: if I have four movies, I can give a big distribution company in Europe the next four years in the life of Van Damme so they'll have an investment.

"I'll make less money, but I want to go back to the (movie) theatre — I look better on the big screen when I smile.

"Those famous action movies, the motion, you can see all the flexibility, the muscles, the legs — that's what people like to see, you know."

Flexing those ageing muscles will clearly remain Van Damme's bread and butter. The trick is to get people to look beyond them.

He talks about the reaction of some people who have seen The Eagle Path: "They go, 'Oh nice arms, you're big there. Oh you're strong, look at your arms, na na na . . .' all that bulls---.

"But after 45 minutes they were hooked to the character and they saw me as a man who was hurt because of a flashback to being young."

He returns to this Eagle film again and again, even when the question is about JCVD: "For the first time in my life I can see maybe 10 times the film I just finished."

As he says in that JCVD monologue, this life is what Van Damme, born Jean-Claude Van Varenberg, wanted. His love of karate and bodybuilding first took him to Hong Kong, then at 20 to LA to try to make it in films. He could barely speak English, but eventually his kickboxing did the talking and he made his name with 1988's Bloodsport.

Maybe he'd have more to be proud of, more films he could watch 10 times, if drugs hadn't messed him up.

"Yeah," he says, "but I so s---; with drugs, man. Oh no, disgusting. No. Disgusting."

He says it was a woman who gave him his first line of cocaine.

"That night, when she gave me that — some people become, I dunno, intellectual; for me, it became primal. And I have an addictive personality, so it was dangerous for me.

"Then I travelled all over the world.

It happens to you when you become a star, and all those guys they want you, then you feel the glamour, it can be a trap for a man."

Why did he finally stop? He answers his own version of the question.

"Yeah, finished," he says. "Stopped. Finished. My family is back together with me, so it's fantastic."

Indeed, Van Damme is again living in Hong Kong, where he's reunited with one of those wives, Gladys Portugues, and their two children.

Those children are now young adults, old enough to do their own thing.

"They want to be actors and directors," Van Damme says.

After his very low lows, it would be understandable if Van Damme were to warn his children to stay away from the movie business.

Apparently, he hasn't.

"No, I don't care what business it is.

I think it's a good business, you can meet lots of people in many countries, different religions, everything. You know what I'm saying?"

Errr, actually, no.

JCVD is showing at ACMI until March 18. www.acmi.net.au

Jean-Claude Van Damme

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