Van Damme hits the mainstream The kick-boxer thinks matinee idol may be more to his liking

September 16, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

New York -- They keep trying to get rid of him, but he will not go away.

"There are so many better-looking, bigger, stronger guys," he says, shaking his head as if he is just as astonished as his interviewer at his own survival.

But Jean-Claude Van Damme, a Belgian kick-boxer and ballet dancer, has the resilience of a knock-it-down and watch-it-pop-up doll. In fact, he opens today in his biggest and most expensive film yet, "Timecop." It's got a mainline director -- Peter Hyams -- and even a special effects budget.

He's got deals with the big boys: Universal and Columbia. He's on the "Today Show" and "The Tonight Show." He's mainstream.

Who'd a-thunk it?

Eight years ago he was sleeping in a car. Five years ago, he barely registered on the Hollywood radar screen when he started his career on a number of extremely low-budget chop sockies, usually made overseas and featuring grotesque martial arts sequences and even more ludicrous plots. "Bloodsport"? "Cyborg"? "Lionheart"? "Double Impact"? These cheesy anti-masterpieces will never be registered with the American Film Institute, but Van Damme is unashamed of their flakiness and can even joke about them.

"Not so great, huh? But it was work."

Instead, he takes pride in what got him through it and kept him going.

"You got to be smart to survive," he says. "I'm always looking for something better."

Not small, not tall, Van Damme has one of those big-featured, square faces that photographs beautifully, one of the great Hollywood chests and a set of arms as sculpted as anything by Rodin. But clothed, he's quite a normal-appearing fellow, although the gaudy green paisley shirt he's wearing today looks like a napalm explosion in a greenhouse.

Interviewed, he grows restless and soon starts prowling the hotel suite like a hyperactive child, twitching with impulses of rogue energy. He's not a sit-in-your-place kind of guy. He doesn't answer, he exhorts.

"I never had a plan," he shouts. "But no matter how limited we were in those days by budget, I tried to reach the audience."

"Timecop" exists on the scale that it does largely, at least in his own recounting, because of his own enthusiasm and urgency.

"I loved the script," he says. "It had good dialogue, a dramatic story, a romantic story, all the ingredients. I thought, 'I want to do this movie.' But I knew there would be problems. I asked my agency [I.C.M., the huge Hollywood talent agency] for a list of A-directors. They said, 'Those guys won't even talk to you.' But I started calling, and finally I decided I wanted Peter Hyams

[who'd directed 'Outland' and '2010,' among others.] When my agent called him, he just said, 'Oh, you mean that karate guy?' "

But Van Damme persisted; not only did Hyams come aboard, but he's directing Van Damme's next film, "Streetfighter," based on a popular video game. ("I'm telling you, 'Streetfighter' will be huge; my name will be all over the place, even on toilet paper! There'll be Van Damme dolls!")

Because of his accent, his body, his penchant for action movies

and his refusal to take "no" for an answer, Van Damme is frequently compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger, comparisons from which he shys away.

"Arnold is Arnold," he says. "We are different. He worked hard, I worked hard."

Of the others, his ebullience sometimes leads him into arrogance.

"I started out wanting to be the next Chuck Norris; now I'm bigger than that.

"I don't know Steven Seagal, and I don't care about him."

But he does think he has one advantage over Arnold and his generational cohorts.

"I'm young. I'm 33. Youth really helps. I think I'm growing more toward being a romantic lead than an action lead." (This is probably news to his studio!)

In fact, he has plans to permutate even more exotically than he has so far.

"I don't want to be the karate guy any more. I could go back and make a bunch of karate pictures that gross $40 million each and be rich and live happily ever after. But I like these big dramatic movies. I see myself working with Oliver Stone or Alan Parker or Adrian Lyne or Brian De Palma." (This is probably news to Stone, Parker, Lyne and De Palma.)

He even has an idea for an Oliver Stone movie, which he begins to pitch. The more he talks, the further he gets into it: the pitch becomes a one-man show, with Jean-Claude Van Damme doing all the parts, shooting ("Pccchclllllcch!" is his gun sound; "Argh!" he grimaces when hit), ducking, fighting, loving, swaggering. The story seems to have something to do with a wandering martial arts orphan who ends up in Siberia in 1902. (My notes are very sketchy.)

"It's a very beautiful story," he says piously at the end. "Huge and complicated with hundreds of extras, but I think I've got enough energy to do it!"

Here's betting he does, too.

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