Jean-Claude Van Damme is going back to his roots. The karate-champion-turned-Hollywood-star, whose helicopter-style jump spinning-jack kicks are considered cult classics, is fighting again at 50.
The actor will step into the ring with 35-year-old Thai boxing champion and Olympic gold medallist Somluck Kamsing at a much publicised event in Las Vegas next year. The outcome of the fight, he tells tabloid!, will not matter but the fact that he came back with a fighting spirit, will.
"For the first time in history we will have a movie star who will step into a ring and do bloodsport for real," he says, ensconced cross-legged in a sofa in his luxury Dubai hotel suite. "After that, nobody can accuse me of being fake or that I'm trying to repair my image.
"My wife is against it, my best friends are against it. But I want to show everyone you can come back to life, that it is possible," he adds. "It's not going to be easy. I'm going to puke my lungs. I have to go from 80 to 75 kgs so I can be fast. I have to build muscles. My heart beat per minute will have to go from 120, which is normal at my age, to 172. That's the only way I can beat him."
Van Damme's determined journey to be a real life fighting champion, again, will be part of a reality film, Jean Claude Van Damme: Behind Closed Doors, commissioned and currently being filmed by British broadcaster ITV. It will culminate at the Vegas fight.
To those who have but written him off, he says he is nowhere near done.
In the UAE to find a retail partner for a self-branded range of luxury watches he's just launched and to develop another reality show based locally, the actor, whose new film The Eagle Path is currently in production, says his upcoming projects are like a second life.
"I started with karate at 11. Then went straight to Hollywood, became famous and got bored being an action star," he says, reflectively.
"It was always the same thing. I didn't go high. Then I hit rock bottom.
"With this reality film, I will go back to being a real fighter, to my earlier struggles and try to be a champion and win."
The struggles Van Damme refers to are his earlier days in Las Vegas, where he first came as a champion fighter from his hometown of Brussels, to try and make a career in Hollywood. Sleeping in cars, often starving, he took on roles as an extra before hitting gold with Bloodsport in 1988. Although derided by critics, the low-budget film was a massive box office success, catapulting its leading star into the limelight.
Then came a string of action-packed films including many many box-office hits in the US and beyond: Kickboxer (1989), Double Impact (1991), Universal Soldier (1992), Hard Target (1993), Nowhere To Run (1993) and his most successful, Time Cop (1994).
In 1996, Van Damme made his directorial debut with The Quest, which received mixed reviews. A string of smaller-budget films followed. While many didn't see theatrical releases in the US, considered a major movie market, his films continued to be lapped up by fans in Asia, Spain and Mexico.
Then, in 2008, came the critically acclaimed JCVD, a comedy drama which saw Van Damme playing himself — a down-and-out action star caught in the middle of a heist.
"That movie was 75 per cent real," he clarifies, smiling. "The director [Mabrouk El Mechri], who was a big fan of my films, thought it would be a good idea to show some parts of the real me. It was an interesting experience also because for the first time I had a chance to do a movie where no one was kicked or punched.
"But this one I'm doing now," he says, pointing to the ITV cameraman, "is 100 per cent me."
"I want people to go inside my life, not like in a studio or in a house with cameras all over. I am going to take the audience with me on a movie star trip. I want to show them I am a normal guy, to travel with me to Thailand, Monaco, Hong Kong and see me for who I am."
JCVD, the movie, also led to the germination of an idea to further expand the Van Damme appeal — a line of luxury watches and sports apparels.
Partnering with his compatriot entrepreneur Philli Borms, the pair launched the JCVD brand on October 18, marking the actor's 50th birthday. The Swiss-made watches, says Borms, range for $299 to $35,000 (Dh1,097 to Dh128,513), with limited-edition pieces going for as much as $355,000. Each piece will be sold with a pair of autographed boxing gloves.
"I've been pushing Jean-Claude for so many years and he finally agreed. Every aspect of the design represents his essence as an action star while being a luxurious product," Borms says.
Waleed Takrouri, whose company will represent the actor and the brand in the region, says a number of high-end retailers have already shown interest in the brand.
"We'll sign the deal in a few days and hope to bring the JCVD brand to fans in the UAE and the region soon," he says. "Jean-Claude has such crossover appeal and he is definitely popular here."
For his part, Van Damme says he is aware of his standing in the fame hierarchy.
"I'm not special and I'm definitely not one of the biggest stars. I know I'm not Tom Cruise. I am like a regular blue jeans, like Wrangler and Levis. I am not Dolce & Gabbana. Brad Pitt is Dolce & Gabbana.
"But I want to be honest and I want to be real — that is why I'm doing this film. I want to show people who think I am a tough guy because of all these movies that I am just a normal guy."
Yet, from movies to JCVD to reality shows and back to the ring for the fight of his life, Van Damme says there is one thing he reminds himself every day.
"I am sitting here in this hotel room, travelling around the world and enjoying the good life because of you," he says, looking straight into our GNTV cameras. "To all the people who have supported me and watched my movies over the years, thank you."