Arnie and Sly may be have made the bigger movies, and Neeson and Statham may be the current Hollywood action darlings, but Jean Claude Van Damme has always been in the mix as an action star with the looks and the splits. His latest film, Pound of Flesh, combines fast-paced martial arts combat with a sympathetic drama. In the film, directed by Ernie Barbarash, who worked with Van Damme on 6 Bullets (2012) and Assassination Games (2011), ‘the muscles from Brussels’ plays Deacon, a former black ops agent, who visits the Philippines to donate his kidney to his dying niece. However, he wakes up the day before the vital operation to find the organ has been cut out of his body. What next for the Belgian? A bust-up mission to get it back, of course.
Speaking to Time Out from his home in Hong Kong, Van Damme says that Pound of Flesh was a unique acting experience. ‘In this film, I have a physical handicap, so I’m not in great shape. The most challenging part was most of the time we weren’t shooting in chronological order, so I had to keep consistency with the weakness of the body, especially when they took the kidney away from me. I had to be getting worse and worse by the second – including the breathing and sweating.’
At 54, the actor has a physique that would put some younger stars to shame, but the action man still has the karate chops and shows no signs of slowing. ‘I did all my stunts in Pound of Flesh,’ he reveals. ‘Sometimes, we have a stunt unit – where people put themselves on fire for actors. We don’t mention their names enough, but it’s very dangerous what they do.’ Did he suffer any serious injuries? He refuses to divulge, joking that ‘next time, I will call the medic and send you a daily report of the scratches and bruises that occurred during filming’.
Despite his action hero attributes, Van Damme has a genuine comic side, and anyone who has seen those amazing ice bar adverts, where he rocks double denim and a mullet to great effect, can testify that he isn’t afraid to laugh at himself. He reveals that it was a cameo on hit TV show Friends back in 1996 – the one where he gets to date both Rachel and Monica – that started to show his lighter side. ‘Friends was so big at that time and I had been doing low-budget film after low-budget film. Then they asked me to be on the show, but I didn’t really know Friends that much. TV is very powerful, people still talk about it. It let me show a different side, and right now, I’m working on a lighter project where I play an actor who’s a spy,’ he says. ‘It will be a bit like The Bourne Identity with a touch of comedy.’
Van Damme has had a career that’s spanned more than 30 years, but the film that was the game changer? ‘I think it was Until Death ,’
he says. ‘The director [Simon Fellows] taught me what acting was about. He really locked me into truthful role playing, and going from action into action character, I would say.’
But what’s his take on shooting action films now, with CGI and green screen? ‘It’s like if you drive an old classic Mercedes or Bentley, you feel the stick shift, you’ll feel like the car is alive,’ he says. ‘Today, if you drive a Mercedes or Bentley they are fantastic, but it’s automatic, so all you have to do is push and look and everything is perfect. That’s how the movies of today are – they are fantastic but they are less organic.’
One of Van Damme’s forthcoming films is Kickboxer: Vengeance a remake of his 1989 film. The 2016 incarnation co-stars British actor Darren Shahlavi, who also stars in Pound of Flesh as villain Drake. Shahlavi tragically died in January after a sudden cardiac arrest and Pound of Flesh is dedicated to him. In Kickboxer: Vengeance, Van Damme plays Master Durand, who coaches young Eric Sloane (Shahlavi). ‘It was great to be involved in this movie, and it’s not just a remake. It will feel very different. I came up with some cool ideas and they were able to execute them. They had great props and effects teams, so I say, “Can we do it like this?” They say, “Sure, done!”
I mean, I’ve done low-budget movies before, where I’ve had to share a gun, but with Kickboxer everything was perfect. I think it’s going to be fantastic and very fresh, lots more action. It’s an honour to be in it.’
Van Damme isn’t threatened by the new crop of action stars on the scene. ‘I think the young generation are very athletic, they have a good face and can act well, but I can still move as fast I could 20 years ago. I did have my ups and downs, my rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, but because of sport, I think it’s in my DNA. I’m still in great shape.’
A quick look at his 2014 Volvo ‘epic splits’ video on YouTube will prove that he’s still got the best splits in the business, a skill he partly attributes to his years of ballet training. ‘People say it’s girls’ stuff, but not to me. Even though I’m a martial arts guy – ballet is beautiful, it’s strong and you don’t get hurt – you don’t have to fight and break your nose! So of course macho guys can do ballet – in fact, macho guys can do everything!’
Pound of Flesh is out now in cinemas across Dubai.