Jean-Claude Van Damme doesn't remember me. And this November morning, on the downtown New Orleans set of Hard Target, an action thriller slated for release this summer, I barely recognize him. It isn't the hair extensions brushing his considerable shoulders. It's not the red gash painted over his right eye. He acts different. The Van Damme I once knew how to put this delicately? broke wind to amuse his employees. On the set he used to scream, ''All the ladies naked now!''
I can only guess that some benign body snatcher dispatched to make Hollywood a less brutish place has stuffed that man in a pod somewhere. This Van Damme puts his big arm around a little brown-eyed Belgian boy named Jonathan and gives him a tour of his trailer; the 12-year-old recently underwent a kidney transplant and was flown here to meet the action hero by the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which grants the requests of sick children. Between takes, this Van Damme dutifully reports to a makeshift studio where an HBO camera crew interviews him on the making of Nowhere to Run, the action movie/love story costarring him and Rosanna Arquette that opened last week. But he is tired. And his English, it's not so good. ''I'm very demented,'' he tells the interviewer. The Belgian accent is blurry and fetching, as if Sly Stallone and Maurice Chevalier were playing tug-of-war with his vocal cords.
Enter Van Damme's publicist, Jay D. Schwartz, a passionate man with big eyes. ''It's demanding,'' he says when the camera stops.
Van Damme: ''De-mant-ing.''
Van Damme: ''De-mand-ing.''
Schwartz: ''I just didn't want it to be demented.''
He needs a good publicist, this Jean-Claude Van Damme. For years he was known around Hollywood as being a bit, well, demented. They said he was erratic, homophobic, sexist, egomaniacal. Some still call him a liar. For the past year stories have circulated suggesting that he isn't the karate champ he claims to be. The tabloids have said he cheats on his wife.
As the HBO crew cranks up for another take, Van Damme gets more vocal coaching.
Van Damme: ''Focus, right?''
Schwartz: ''You've been saying it correctly.''
Van Damme (baiting the teacher): ''Not fuh-kus?''
That's how he used to pronounce it, and people laughed behind his back.
Schwartz: ''Not fuh-kus. Fo-cus. Fo-cus.''
The saga of Van Damme, so far, has been well chronicled. How in 1981, at the age of 21, he landed in Hollywood broke, leaving behind in his native Brussels one failed marriage and a few titles from karate competitions. In L.A. he drove limousines, learned English on the street, and failed at another marriage. One night by chance, outside a restaurant, he ran into B-movie mogul Menahem Golan. Seizing the moment, he demonstrated his kickboxing skills over Golan's head. Golan agreed to meet with him and gave him the lead in the 1988 action quickie Bloodsport.
That $2 million picture pulled in a startling $11.6 million at the box office and has generated another $7 million on video, where most films of this genre make their real money. At 28, Van Damme became an international action hero. Naturally, more of the same followed: Cyborg (1989, $10.2 million), Kickboxer (1989, $14.7 million), and Lionheart (1991, $22.5 million), among others.
Most of these opuses are simple revenge fantasies. Boy's friend/brother is killed. Boy kickboxes some butt. Boy gets the (beautiful but expendable) girl. And most of them have worked, surprisingly, because of Van Damme's keen sense of storytelling. ''He's got a great story mind,'' says his veteran ICM agent, Jack Gilardi. ''He's a great study, he sees every film.'' When Bloodsport was released, Van Damme prowled L.A. parking lots himself, putting flyers under windshield wipers. He has had a hand in editing, writing, promoting, and directing every one of his films. And he has always been smart enough to throw in a heinie shot, for those he calls ''the ladies.''
But that was just Van Damme getting warmed up. Now, armed with a three- movie deal at Columbia Pictures, he is poised for greater things. He could be the next Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal, attracting an audience far beyond his young, male, karate-loving followers at least that's the plan. Nowhere to Run, the first installment of his Columbia deal, marks the start of this campaign. Directed by Robert Harmon (The Hitcher) and cowritten by Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct), it's a contemporary twist on the 1953 Western Shane. Van Damme stars as an escaped convict who grows attached to a widow (Arquette) and her two kids (Tiffany Taubman and Kieran Culkin, Macaulay's younger brother). Sid Ganis, Columbia's president of marketing and distribution, says the film is ''true to his audience and goes beyond his audience.'' In other words, Van Damme fights with his fists, not his feet. Plus his love interest has lines.
Behind studio gates, major players are working hard to guide Van Damme's career through its awkward adolescence and into an even more profitable adulthood. The team includes Columbia execs, Gilardi, and lawyer Jake Bloom (who, Van Damme points out, also handles ''Arnold''). ''I think that Jean-Claude will eventually do the Tom Cruise roles,'' says Gilardi.
With a reported per-picture fee of $3.5 million, Van Damme is ready to play with the big boys. So he has to act like one. That's where Schwartz comes in. As Van Damme's publicist, he gets the actor involved in image-enhancing endeavors like the Make-a-Wish Foundation. He gets him to interviews and photo shoots on time. Van Damme calls him ''Master.''
Can Van Damme's brain trust turn him into a proper movie star? Forgive me if I've had some doubts.