- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2015

Summer wouldn’t be summer without the Muscles From Brussels teaching some bad guys a lesson. But while hand-to-hand combat is certainly a big part of “Pound of Flesh,” now out in theaters, Jean-Claude Van Damme says he is more proud of his acting performance in this film than he has been in years.

“I did a good job,” Mr. Van Damme told The Washington Times, saying that “Pound of Flesh” required his character, Deacon, to express more psychological range than is typically called for in the high kicks and explosions martial arts genre.

“I was good on that level,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s my best. It’s hard to judge my movies because, to be honest with you, after I finish them, I don’t see them completely finished.”

In “Pound of Flesh,” Deacon awakes in an ice bath to discover that one of his kidneys has been removed without his consent, leading him on a quest to recover his organ — which he intended to donate to his dying niece — and unleash some butt-kicking upon its thieves.

Mr. Van Damme, 54, has been a staple of the martial arts/action genre since the late 1980s, when he burst on the scene in the true-life tournament film “Bloodsport.” While making occasional forays into more mainstream entries such as the 1994 sci-fi drama “Timecop” and the 2008 drama “JCVD” — in which he portrayed himself in a critically praised, self-reflective performance in his native Belgium — he remains known primarily for displaying his martial arts chops and trademark splits.

Keeping in shape, he said, particularly at his age, is key to remaining able to churn out the kinds of films his fans have come to expect.

“After so many years of training, people understand their body well because they have a certain core communication between themselves and their body,” which also heads off chances for injury, Mr. Van Damme said.

The actor said he works out six times a week to stay in shape and to keep his martial arts form primed for his professional life and his inner equanimity.

“If I don’t train every day, I become very depressed for a couple of days,” he said. “It became almost like a need — a part of my life.”

While Mr. Van Damme and other action stars such as Steven Seagal continue to churn out action flicks for the international market — where they are typically more popular than in the United States — many critics cry out that the action genre has run its course. Add to that chorus the ages of 1980s action stalwarts such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, 67, and Sylvester Stallone, 68, and one might wonder whether the genre’s heavyweights are (to parrot Danny Glover’s refrain in the “Lethal Weapon” films) “too old for this [stuff].”

Mr. Van Damme disputes that notion. Although dramas and comedies typically do not translate well across cultures, he said, action is universal, finding equally receptive audiences in the West and the East with little, if any, rejiggering of plot points or cultural references.

“Action movies will always exist for the male audience,” Mr. Van Damme said. “If I do a joke in French or English, nobody [elsewhere] would get it. But everybody understands [action] and martial arts. We all have that primal instinct of being inner warriors.”

While fights and explosions certainly grab his audience’s attention, Mr. Van Damme said, the script remains the most essential element to his choice of work.

“It matters if you have a good story,” he said, which he believes “Pound of Flesh” provides. “People start to go [along with] the story, and then they start to have a relationship to the character. And to become the character, you don’t follow the script anymore; the script is following you.”

Mr. Van Damme upended his own action-hero image by portraying the villain in the ensemble cast of 2012’s “The Expendables 2,” led by Mr. Stallone. Mr. Van Damme said his fans embraced his dark side in that franchise, which also has featured Mr. Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Chuck Norris, Jason Statham, Mel Gibson, Terry Crews and many other heavyweights of the genre.

“‘Expendables’ was cool, and I still relate to the actors,” Mr. Van Damme said.

In the film, he fought a climactic one-on-one battle with Mr. Stallone. “Everyone wants to see me in those action movies. In a sense, it’s great because I have to train and be in shape for them.”

At the same time, Mr. Van Damme said, he has had fun subverting his public persona, not just in “JCVD” but also during his recent appearance on Conan O’Brien’s talk show to promote “Pound of Flesh,” in which he told the titular host and his audience “Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers, and to my mom, and to my wife — and all my wives,” referring to his complicated romantic history.

In addition, the host showed Mr. Van Damme a clip from his 1989 film “Kickboxer,” in which he danced drunkenly while fighting off barflies. Mr. Van Damme then reprised the dance to the very same song for Mr. O’Brien, with two stuntmen attacking him in echo of the 26-year-old scene.

“It was fantastic,” Mr. Van Damme said of the gag, which he said engendered a special relationship among himself, Mr. O’Brien and the audience. “I became a better man [because of the stunt].”

 

Pound of Flesh

Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, John Ralston, Darren Shahlavi, Charlotte Peters, Aki Aleong, Mike Leder and James Houghton

Directed by: Ernie Barbarash

Written by: Joshua James

Produced by: Kirk Shaw, Odyssey Media, Henry Luk (imdb has him as producer)

Executive produced by: Kirk Shaw, Lv Jianmin, Jeffrey Giles, Michael Lurie, Keith Shaw, Devi Singh

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