PARIS: "The Muscles from Brussels" is back, and this time it isn't serious. The Belgian action hero actor Jean-Claude Van Damme returns to the screen Friday as the bungling star of a new Amazon comedy series.
The "Universal Soldier" actor, whose career went into a tailspin after "Timecop" made him a worldwide star in 1994, plays a comic version of himself in the new streaming series, "Jean-Claude Van Johnson".
Fiction and reality cross over in the show written by "Godzilla" and "Wonder Woman" screenwriter Dave Callaham, in which Van Damme sends up his own desperation to get back into the big time.
But the star has a secret double life. Operating under the alias "Johnson", the martial arts expert comes out of retirement to hire himself out as the most easily recognisable undercover agent in the world.
For Van Damme, 57, most of whose recent work has gone straight to video, the "burlesque, clownesque" series produced by "Blade Runner" creator Ridley Scott is "maybe a way to save my career".
"I wanted to do television for the last nine or 10 years," he told AFP, but realised he was not "Brad Pitt, who can just raise his hand and he would have TV shows calling him."
Nor did Van Damme have any problems playing a parody of himself.
'Used to be super famous'
"It is difficult to make fun of yourself. But since I'm a good actor, why not?"
Van Damme said the show walks the thin line between comedy and tragedy. "It's almost poignant," said the actor just before the series had its world premiere in Paris on Tuesday. "It takes a lot out of you."
He said he would not have done it without trusting the team behind the camera.
"Having Ridley Scott, Dave Callaham and Amazon all together is less of a risk than a movie like 'Pound of Flesh'," Van Damme added, referring to the 2015 Vietnamese action flick where he played a man who woke up one morning to find someone had stolen his kidney.
"The trust was there right away. You can see love in the eyes of a person, you can see if a person doesn't like you," said the actor, who still works out and has not lost his trademark Belgian accent.
Indeed the series opens with the actor staring straight at the camera and saying, "My name is Jean-Claude Van Damme. I used to be super famous."
JCVD, as he is known in Hollywood, had to take risks in the series that few other well-known actors would, according to director Peter Atencio.
"For me, he has always been the most sensitive action hero. We challenged him like he had not been challenged before. He had to do a huge amount of work, way more than one actor would normally do in a movie, and his performance is very brave," he said.
Van Damme's missed talent
The series' creator told AFP he was convinced Van Damme had hidden depths others had missed.
"I have waited my whole life to write something for Jean-Claude," said Callaham, who grew up on Van Damme films.
"My mother is from China, so she raised me watching martial arts films.
"Jean-Claude is still a gigantic international star", particularly in Asia, the writer added, "and I felt very strongly from watching so many of his movies that he had a side to him that no one had fully taken advantage of."
Van Damme's only demand was that the series be premiered in Paris so he could invite his mother to walk the red carpet with him.
"Ten or 15 years ago I was gone in terms of theatrical openings," the world´s best known Belgian after Tintin said.
"But I promised Mama and I knew that one day I would come back, and we´ll do the premiere in Paris," he said.
As good as his word, he brought his parents from their home in Knokke near Bruges to the French capital for the premiere at the Grand Rex.
"I am very proud of him," his mother Eliana Van Varenberg told reporters.
His father Eugene had also recorded a surprise video message for his son, telling him how proud he had made them. "No one would have believed that a European could have made it like that in Hollywood," he said.
"But I have a wish," he continued, as tears welled up in his son's eyes. "I would love you to put your feet up a bit and enjoy life.
"I know that is difficult for you, but you have looked after the whole family, and I don´t see why you have to continue to work so hard."