Martial-arts maverick Jean-Claude Van Damme kicks off his latest bid for serious stardom in 'Timecop'

By Benjamin Svetkey
September 23, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Look at his back. Look at his shoulders. Look at his toes-even his toes are strong. Magnificent!” *Jean-Claude Van Damme, action hero and art enthusiast, is admiring the muscle tone of Jean Baptiste Carpeaux’s Ugolino and His Sons, a hulking piece of 19th-century Romantic sculpture on exhibit in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s Van Damme’s first trip to the city’s venerable landmark-he’s in town to plug his latest film, a sci-fi/kickboxing odyssey called Timecop-but he sails through the Met’s hallowed halls with the cocky strut of a veteran culture vulture.

*”This is a good idea, coming to the museum,” he says, in his famous Chevalier-on-steroids accent. ”Because, you see, in Timecop I’m traveling back to the past, and here in the museum we’re traveling back to the past. It’s perfect, no?”

It’s perfect, yes, and in more ways than one. With Timecop, Van Damme is once again trying to upgrade his career to a more civilized level, to reach a slightly more cultivated audience than his core of fans, karate-crazed 12- year-old boys. His 13 previous films — mostly low-budget head-bangers with titles like Bloodsport, Cyborg, and Death Warrant — have taken him only so far, placing him fourth in the action-hero line of succession (behind Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Seagal). Timecop is supposed to be Van Damme’s slickest, classiest flick yet-the long-awaited, oft-predicted breakthrough that will finally turn the Muscles from Brussels into a serious A-list ac- tohr.

”We get into my character’s past and all that stuff,” he says. ”It’s the first movie where the audience will feel for the guy I’m playing. It’s a very smart story, so a certain type of people can enjoy it.”

At $27 million, it’s certainly the most expensive Van Damme movie to hit theaters so far. He plays Max Walker, a futuristic flatfoot who zips around in a time machine chasing after quantum-leaping crooks-especially one power-mad politician bent on changing history to his advantage (played with eerie conviction by Ron Silver). Naturally, the film is jammed with fiery effects, in-your-face martial arts, and trippy time-travel paradoxes. But Timecop also has a gooey romantic B story about Walker’s murdered wife (Mia Sara) that lets Van Damme show off his more emotional, vulnerable side (as well as his naked butt, in yet another of the actor’s signature heinie scenes).

”I don’t think Pacino has to retire just yet,” observes Timecop director Peter Hyams (2010, Outland). ”But Jean-Claude is charming. Before I met him I was expecting this guy who wouldn’t know how to use a doorknob. But he’s a total gentleman, generous, sweet, and rather shy. I thought if we could project that, it would broaden his appeal.”

Until now, Van Damme hasn’t been totally successful at projecting his sweeter side-on the screen or off. He has a reputation as a bit of a tough guy (he got his start by cornering B-movie mogul Menahem Golan outside a restaurant and demonstrating his kickboxing technique over his head) and a control freak. ”God knows he’s not the easiest person to get along with,” offers Jim Jacks, who produced Van Damme’s last attempted breakthrough, 1993’s Hard Target (directed by Chinese action guru John Woo). There have also been a few scandals-mostly involving his messy 1993 divorce from bodybuilder Gladys Portugues (he left her for exotic dancer Darcy LaPier, now the fourth Mrs. Van Damme). And a sexual-assault lawsuit that hit all the tabs last December, when a New Orleans woman claimed Van Damme and LaPier conspired with her boyfriend to coerce her into group sex.

At one point, the stress of it all apparently took a toll on Van Damme. During the height of his marital problems in 1992, he checked into the hospital with chest pains. ”It was not a heart attack, or an anxiety attack, or anything,” he says now. ”I’ll tell you what it was, because it may help people. I was doing too much caffeine. I was working out a lot, drinking too much coffee, and the caffeine mixed with the lactic acid. That’s the reason I went to the hospital.”

Whether it was a heart-attack scare or the dreaded lactic acid-caffeine syndrome, something changed Van Damme’s attitude. These days he’s so gung ho about being a senseeteeve man he makes Alan Alda look like Andrew Dice Clay. Van Damme on religion: ”I love churches. I love the quiet and the echo.” On his favorite films: ”I like Forrest Gump. Sometimes the simple people have the right answers.” On being a movie star: ”I am a simple man. I live in the Valley. I train every day. I eat. I make movies. Life is so beautiful.”

At times, Van Damme’s over-the-top joie de vivre threatens to carom out of control. During his stroll through the Met, he can’t resist caressing his favorite pieces, setting off sensor alarms throughout the museum. The guards cut him celebrity slack, but they look nervous, as if at any moment he might kickbox a Grecian urn off its pedestal.

”I am only 33!” he announces in the Greek and Roman wing. ”I’m young to be an action star. All those other guys are in their 40s. I’ve got 10 years in front of me.” Van Damme’s not wasting any of them. He’s just finished the $38 million video game-based film Street Fighter, which opens in December, and he’s started filming his next, Sudden Death, a hockey/action flick also directed by Hyams. It’s not until Van Damme wanders into the Met’s Picasso exhibit that a crack finally appears in his New Man veneer. ”Picasso is like one of those movies that has big stars and all the critics love, but really it’s not very good,” he says, squinting at The Studio: Portrait, Profile, and Sculpted Head. ”Everybody is like, ‘Ooooo! He’s so great.’ They’re afraid to say what they really think—that it stinks.”

He gives the painting another long, smirky glance. ”I came here to see the beautiful statues,” he says. ”To me, those sculptures were perfect. They were real. They were strong. This Picasso stuff—pffft. Just colors and lines. I can’t appreciate it.” The man may not know much about art, but he knows what he likes—muscle tone.