Star struck in SA

Jean-Claude Van Damme, visiting South Africa this week to promote his martial-arts extravaganza, The Quest, has a problem: he’s too cute, the sexiest of the holy trinity of Hollywood musclemen.

Arnold Schwarzenegger reached his apotheosis as a cyborg in the Terminator movies: he looks like a cyborg, and if he actually turned into one, would anyone notice? Sly Stallone looks as though he’s been flattened — there’s no intelligent life in there.

But Van Damme? He’s naive enough to make stupid publicity gaffes, and to tell a horrified journalist he’d like to climb all over her body. Well, she was horrified. A Cape Town woman touched him and fainted. Another woman offered his sponsors R10 000 for a five-minute interview.

At the Johannesburg première of his film, journalists jostled with thousands of fans. And there were no cosy one-on-one interviews for the press. We were taken in batches to ask questions under the watchful — I nearly said “beady” — eye of a beefy bodyguard.

A bad case of star behaviour? No. Van Damme (see picture) is pretty much down to earth. He wears glasses in public. He’s five foot 10, he giggles and, when he doesn’t eat regularly, he’s “a pain in the butt”. He “loves the human body and reading about medicine, mental problems and all that shit”. To call him naive is a compliment: “Intelligence can be very dangerous. It’s nice to be simple, you’re happy, can enjoy stuff more easily than smart people who can smell and see everything.”

And he is smart: he doesn’t watch martial arts movies. “Honest to God, no!” He prefers “movies with heart and passion. I did low-budget movies that became so successful I wondered why people liked them. I’m lucky to be famous with such simple films.” It’s time for “good stories and acting. Now I’m popular and more powerful in Hollywood, I can demand good scripts. I’ve paid my dues.” He has.

The Quest is goodbye to all that: it’s his last martial-arts movie. Thank God, some say. But naivety is the strong point of Van Damme’s movies — there is something appealingly soft (cute?) about him. He’s a kid’s hero. A mother told me her children are mad about him, not Arnie or Sly. Will sophisticated films spoil Van Damme? Maybe.

The Quest could have been better — there wasn’t enough time or money to film the whole script. It should have been a Braveheart, but Mel Gibson had 24 weeks to film that epic. Van Damme had much, much less.

He wanted more scenes with the orphans he leaves behind in New York; he wanted the camera to zoom in on a star he looks at in Thailand where he’s fighting to make money for them, and to zoom back so that viewers are with the kids again, wondering what happened to their saviour. This is the sort of “vision” he wasn’t able to get and somehow he can talk about vision without sounding self-aggrandising. Fame, he says, isn’t about being a star: it’s just having fun making movies.

Members of the public think differently. After the première, a blonde, muscled, star-struck youngster who looked as though he had just stepped off a Californian beach wanted to know where the after-show party was. He wanted to be a film star. “You and a hundred thousand others,” I said grimly. “My heart won’t let me be anything else,” he replied.

Perhaps stardom, or the thought of it, makes everyone a little mad. Amid all this, Van Damme seems pretty sane.

The Quest opens on circuit on May 10

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