Van Damme looks beyond his karate films

September 1, 1998

A lot of these movie tough guys travel with bodyguards, not so much because they are trying to come off like jerks, but more that they are likely to attract jerks. Jean Claude Van Damme, however, "The Muscles from Brussels," shrugs off the thought with one of those little European downward turns of the mouth and slight shrug.

Sure, sometimes he might run into some drunken lout who wants to score some points with his friends by kicking Van Damme's Belgian butt. Except that it's not going to happen.

"I will just talk my way out of it," says Van Damme, sitting in a downstairs room at Planet Hollywood, in town to promote his latest action flick, "Knock Off" (opening Friday at the AMC 1000, Kabuki and Metro Center (Colma).

"If I can't talk my way out of it, I will just leave. I can't be getting into fights, because I will always lose. If I lose, then I lose. And if I win, then I lose, too. I prefer to make friends, shake some hands," he continues, dressed in a casually chic manner with a starched white shirt, linen shorts and wire-rimmed glasses. "If I start having bodyguards, I have no freedom. It is not worth it to me, I like people."

Van Damme has been making his karate movies since 1987. Low budget head knockers such as "Bloodsport" and

"Lionheart" were long on flying fists and short on dialogue. As the money kept rolling in, Van Damme started making more studio films, slicker looking versions with largely the same formula: No problem is too big for the sleek-looking Van Damme to tackle, all the while keeping his pretty face intact and his hair nicely gelled. It may not be Olivier, but it keeps the actor in endives.

"Knock Off" was directed by Tsui Hark and filmed in Hong Kong. The plot revolves around a Russian Mafia scheme to bring microbombs to the terrorist black market planted in knock-off designer jeans - hence the title. It probably sounded a lot better to the movie's financiers than

"Microbomb." In any case, Van Damme said the Hong Kong shooting schedule was grueling, although he did get to do a lot of his own stunts.

"In Hong Kong, things are a lot more free. I have been training for years, so it is good to be able to do many things physically," he says, his English accented with traces of the French and Flemish he also speaks. "In the U.S., they do not like you to do your stunts, because there are insurance problems and such. If you get hurt, the production has to be shut down and you can put a lot of people out of work. It would not be a good move for your career," he adds with a laugh.

What many people don't know about Van Damme is that he was once asked to join the Paris Opera as a dancer. As a young man, he trained almost as heavily in ballet as in the martial arts. Being a man's man, he is confident enough to have no fear of tutu jokes.

"That was more the old rules, that a man had to be only macho," he says. "Now, you can be strong and sensitive. Ballet is wonderful training for footwork and balance - it complements martial arts quite well. And no one can tell me that someone like Baryshnikov was not an athlete. It is hard to keep such a calm expression on your face when you do such physical exertion. It is hard to keep your leg up in the air like that."

In October, Van Damme will be 38. He knows enough about his body to understand that he may not always be able to battle the forces of evil with quite as much gusto as he is now able to summon. With that in mind, he is looking to broaden the range of his acting in some future projects for his own production company. He hints that his subsequent roles will display more depth.

"They will be wild and sexy and cynical. They will not be Van Damme movies. Well, actually, they will," he says, quickly correcting himself, "because that is how I am in real life."

Van Damme generally trains for three hours a day, at least five days a week. He continued to do this in Hong Kong during the filming of "Knock Off," where he was often on the set for 16 hours at a time.

"If you look at the film, I seem a little bit tired," he recalls. "That is because I am tired. That was a lot of work, but it was worth it. After we were done, I totally let myself go. I did not go to the gym for two-and-a-half weeks!"

With that shocking confession, Van Damme was ready to sign some autographs for his fans and catch a plane for Minneapolis, where he was anxious to see the underground Mall of America, billed as the world's biggest mall. Honest.

"I hear it is really something," says the man of the world. "It must get very cold there to put it underground."

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