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A graceful dynamo

Robert Ito, New York Times, Dec 9 2017, 21:57 IST

On a recent afternoon on his expansive estate in California, in a beautifully appointed living room the size of a mead hall, Jean-Claude Van Damme suddenly fired a high kick at my face, stopping short of crunching cartilage and bone. I didn't ask him to do it, but it was a thrill nonetheless. After all, he has aimed that very same foot at the heads of action superstars like Dolph Lundgren, Bolo Yeung and Sylvester Stallone.

"I still love martial arts," he said, breaking into a broad smile. "Martial arts changed my life. If you were born in the dojo, you will die in the dojo."

He's all brawn

It's hard to picture Van Damme, famed for his devastating reverse roundhouse and epic splits, not kicking somebody. Even in his lousiest pictures - "I made lots of low-budget movies," he admitted - he's a thing of beauty, a graceful, whirling dynamo. He's Jean-Claude Van Damme, the 'Muscles from Brussels', in every movie he makes. So, it's perhaps not such a surprise that, in his latest project, he's playing himself, sort of.

On December 15, Amazon Studios will release the first season of Jean-Claude Van Johnson. In the metaseries, part comedy, part drama, he plays a broken-down action star who makes terrible films - like a kung-fu-filled remake of Huckleberry Finn - as cover for his real gig as a lethal black ops agent, code-named Jean-Claude Van Johnson.

The series may be his weirdest project to date, no small feat for a guy who, in a career spanning four decades, has punched a rattlesnake (Hard Target), been crucified by pirates (Cyborg) and saved a baby from a wild tiger with the help of former NBA star Dennis Rodman (Double Team).

In Jean-Claude Van Johnson, his first television drama series, the 57-year-old actor tackles no fewer than three roles. He plays a fictionalised version of himself, a time-travelling doppelganger and a simpering, squeaky-voiced Bulgarian factory worker.

It's a remarkable turnaround for the Belgian-born actor, who became a bankable action star in the 1980s and 90s in films directed by some of Hong Kong's greatest action directors, then watched as personal troubles - an addiction to cocaine, contentious divorces - scuttled his career.

Rather than dodge the actor's sometimes rocky past, the series lovingly mocks it. Throughout the six-part series, references are sprinkled to Van Damme films and life stories from the past, including parodies of training sequences and nods to his years filming in places like Bulgaria and China.

Dave Callaham, the show's creator and showrunner, and a longtime aficionado of Van Damme's work, leapt when he heard, in 2014, that Scott Free Productions, Ridley Scott's company behind TV shows like The Good Wife and The Man in the High Castle, was trying to come up with a TV series for the action star.

A writer on Godzilla and The Expendables, Callaham knew action, but he had more than just another Van Damme martial arts flick in mind. He envisioned something high-concept, like the critically acclaimed 2008 Belgian film JCVD, which starred Van Damme playing himself as an unwitting participant in a post office robbery. "I told them I'd like to play with the notions of who he is and what he represents in the culture," Callaham said. "He was my favourite actor growing up, so I wanted to talk about the ups and downs of his career, and to do something that involved all those different worlds. And they said, great, we don't know what you're talking about."

But Callaham was very apprehensive about how Van Damme would react when he pitched the show. "I didn't know J C personally, and I didn't know what his appetite would be for making fun of himself," he said. "A lot of those guys, those 80s guys especially, are not open to that."

He needn't have worried. "JC was really friendly and nice," he said. "He was aware of my credits, so he mainly wanted to ask me questions about Godzilla. He had a lot of questions about Godzilla."

Recalling gone times

With the new show, Van Damme, a native French speaker, has no problem mocking his image. Dressed in a black 'Brussels, Belgium' T-shirt and jeans, he spoke candidly about his early days in Hollywood trying to convince casting agents that he spoke English ("it was a catastrophe") and about past roles. "I made 40-plus movies where you see me with a gun and that one neutral face," he said.

The series riffs on themes from those films, including time travel (the 1994 cult classic Timecop) and doppelgangers (Double Impact, from 1991), and spoofs the "anything for a buck" nature of Hollywood action films. In Huck, the show's film within a film, the hero is a brawling superpatriot in a straw hat ("I pledge allegiance to kicking ass," he says), Tom Sawyer is a woman (and Huck's lover), and Huck's runaway slave pal is changed from African-American to Chinese mid-production, in a shameless scheme to exploit the Asian market.

The series also shows the softer side of Van Damme, who, in the film is often his own worst enemy. "I feel like he's on this real razor's edge between wanting to be very big and outgoing, and wanting to really keep to himself and be very private," said Kat Foster (Weeds), who plays his black ops sidekick and ex-girlfriend. "I think JCVJ is a homage to the quieter parts of him, the parts of him that he prefers to hide."

As he awaits the international reaction to the show (which is set to air in more than 200 countries and territories), Van Damme is keeping busy on a variety of projects. He's helping train mixed martial arts fighters (in the past, he's worked with the Diaz Brothers and UFC champion Georges St.-Pierre) and working to create a sanctuary for endangered animals in Australia. But he's most excited about the series, which he calls the highlight of this year, and which will have its world premiere on December 12 at the Grand Rex theatre in Paris.

"When I lost my Timecop fame because of some stupidity, and then I didn't do any theatrical film for nine, 10 years except Expendables 2, I said to my mother, 'Before you go, Mama, I'm gonna make sure I'm back in theatres, and we'll have a big premiere in Paris,'" he said. "And now it's happening. She's 83, and everything I told my mama is happening now."

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