Kickboxer: Retaliation’s Lead Man Went From Fan To Stuntman To Star

Alain Moussi only got into kickboxing after seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport – now he’s fighting alongside him in the lead role – how did he make it, and what’s it like being punched by Mike Tyson?

RISING What’s it like acting alongside your kickboxing hero, Jean-Claude Van Damme?
‘You know, it's kind of surreal. You pinch yourself every day and you're like, yes, I'm here, my trailer's there, his trailer's there. We get on set and say: “What's up?” For me, it's like going full circle. I started in martial arts because I saw Bloodsport – Jean-Claude was the one who inspired and as a kid he was my hero.’

‘Jean-Claude started talking to me as soon as we got on the project two years ago. On set he is really a fun actor to play off of, because he gives so much, you know? He was always there to push me. “OK, do another one,” and he would just go at it harder, in order for me to be able to give more. My performance was just as important as his for him – that was really, really cool.’

RISING What was in your mind to bring something new into the genre with Kickboxer: Vengeance?
‘You know, it's like, you don't want to repeat what was done. So my goal wasn’t to try to replicate what Jean-Claude did back in the 80s. I actually didn't even watch the movie before we started shooting, because I didn't want to be inspired by it, I just wanted to have fresh ideas and just come in with something different, I was just focused on, you know, look at the script, look at the story, focus on character.’

RISING How was it different with Kickboxer: Retaliation?
‘What’s cool is that it's an original story. You're no longer doing a remake, so you get to really be original and push it forward even more. We pushed the action, we pushed the story. The cinematography is really cool, especially for its budget level. My goal was to bring in not a copy of Kurt Sloane 1989, it was to bring this brand new person.’

RISING Your career is unusual because you were a stuntman who landed a leading role – did doing stunts evolve organically from martial arts?
‘It did. I came up in jiu-jitsu since I was ten, my friend JS was karate world champion out of Montreal and he got into stunt work when they were shooting 300 there. As soon as he got in, I asked him: “Listen, you've got to get me in, like today,” and he's like, “Well, you know, it just doesn't work that way.” Five years later when they were shooting Immortals, I had started working on my own on independent projects with friends – we created this web series called NX Files and I studied Jackie Chan; a lot of film fighting, stunt fighting.’

‘Then JS introduced me to Jean Frenette, who was the Fight Coordinator on Immortals. I auditioned and at the end of that audition we did two hours of training, including sword work, acrobatics, stunt reactions, fight choreography; everything. The door was open and I happened to be the same size as Henry Cavill. So that's how I ended up doubling Henry on Immortals on my first, first stunt gig. That was my way in.’

‘I threw Channing Tatum 6ft into the air and down onto a glass roof’

RISING What’s been your most spectacular stunt?
‘The most dangerous one would be on White House Down – it was a 25-foot fall through a glass ceiling. There's a fight on the White House and I ended up doubling the bad guy, so I slammed Channing Tatum over on the roof and we fell through this glass roof for 25ft on the steel wire system – they let us go freefall through the glass then and hit on top of the table below. It's like a freefall, a slight deceleration, just to break a bit of the sting, and then freefall again for another 12ft to land on the table. That was a scary one. Getting ready on top and pulling the pin on the system – I swear my heart was pounding so fast: 3, 2, 1 action, go, boom!’ It was perfect, they had four cameras on us; they kept that take.’

‘The dangerous thing that happened was a hinge broke, so the big metal beam fell down about two feet away from my head. We were like, what's this thing, looking around and we look up and it's one of those beams that fell. Had it fallen on my head, I don't know if I would be here today…’

RISING What’s been your favourite fight so far?
‘I had an amazing time on Kickboxer Retaliation.One scene is a four-and-a-half minute, one-shot fight – I go in and I fight 17 guys and the camera never cuts. It's really cool. We had 17 guys, we had two levels, we had a scaffolding to hit guys through. So often you stay on the hero – we wanted to focus on the aftermath. So, when you hit a guy, you toss him downstairs, you don't just stay on the hero, you showcase the guys fall because it's super-impressive. The choreography is designed in such a way where all the hits are brutal. The guys got hit – the hits in the face are real. Everything connected. It’s done with control, there's a way to do it to control even hits in the face and nobody got knocked out – no bad injuries, but it’s definitely brutal.’

RISING How do you control a hit like that – it can't be slow, so what's the technique?
‘So, there's a way to do it where the person kicking has to have tons of control – you can almost compress into your hip to create the reaction as opposed to just keep pressing right through their face to create a reaction. You have to place your foot in exactly the right spot when it's a kick and then the face connects to it. I've done this, I've been on the receiving end before. You're running, the guy kicks you so as the foot comes through, you have to be able to react in such a way that you're not in the hit too long and get knocked out. I have a lot of control with my kicks. That's one skillset I have, I've been working at it for 25 years.’

RISING How many takes did the 4.5-minute fight take?
‘The camera was passed through four operators in the sequence – if you miss something in the last two beats of this choreography, you have to start over. Most of the time, these kind of scenes are rehearsed for weeks. We rehearsed it for an hour and a half, we did it and the one that made the movie is take number three. It's crazy. I couldn't believe it. I'm like, 'Do you guys understand that we just pulled off a miracle here?’ The stunt guys, me, the cameras, everybody together – this was such a collaboration that had to all happen perfectly and it did on day one, before lunch. That's just crazy, you know?’

RISING Which actors have you worked with that impressed you?
‘Henry Cavill was really, really good. He was adamant about training. There's this one sequence where he goes through the tunnel fighting guys and he didn't have a chance to rehearse all that much. He really wanted to do it on his own, and he ended up doing it on take four, I think. So I was really impressed by the fact that he was able to learn it – he was very focused.’

RISING What about stunt doubling for Channing Tatum in White House Down?
‘I was on the roof fighting with him, I came in and I'm like, “Dude, don't forget, you can hit me in the body – let's make it look really good, so don’t hesitate to make some contact.” So he looked at me and he said: “Hey man, you can hit me too you know!” So we did it in one, the whole fight, boom, boom, boom – it was awesome. When we stood up, they were cheering and then I had to throw him on the glass roof, and he actually wanted to do it. So I took Channing Tatum over my shoulder and I threw him up over my back – he was at least six feet in the air – flat back on top of a glass roof and I was like, wow, respect man. The next day he was really sore! I was like, good on you, that was pretty impressive.’

‘You see Mike Tyson’s knuckles enter my stomach and pecs – there’s no CGI there it’s all real hits’

RISING You took some real, slow-mo hits from ‘Iron Mike’ Tyson in Retaliation – weren’t you a bit nervous?
‘God yes! Definitely, but you know what, Mike has tons of control – the proof of it is that I’m still alive! I was nervous and after a few hits, I was like: “OK, I can take it, I'm good. We'll get through this!” Fighting with Mike Tyson! That was awesome. We shot with these high-speed cameras so we made all the hits to the body real and there's this shot that goes in to phantom mode, slow motion where you all the ripples – you see his knuckles enter my pecs and then enter my stomach and you're like: “Oh, my God!” There's no CG in there, it's all real. It was a bit painful, but definitely worth it, you know?’

RISING What’s your routine and what's the most effective workout that you do?
‘I do martial arts pretty much every day. I do kickboxing one day and I'll do jiu-jitsu another day and I'll do kicking and acrobatics another day, plus I add some conditioning in the gym. Over the last year I was doing a lot of power lifting – I wanted a change of pace to put on a bit of size, then make it functional later. Right now I have a lower body workout and an upper body workout and I keep it very functional. In my martial arts school, we also have this great HIIT training programme, called K2XFIT – full body workouts every time using battle ropes, bosu balls, kettlebells, all functional training exercises. Often I'll do a martial arts workout and then finish it with a K2XFIT – 30-minute, or 25-minute blitz.’

RISING Do you find you have to train hard to avoid getting injured during filming?
‘Sometimes I do 12 hours of fighting on set during the day and some of that is being beat up for about ten hours a day. I get there, I'm prepared, my body is conditioned, I can face it no problem and get up the next day and do it over again. So it's all about the preparation but for me it's not a chore to go and train. I love it, I need it actually, it keeps me sane.’

‘Good nutrition helps you recover – I barely take supplements – I do it with real food and I feel great’

RISING What's your top post-workout recovery tip?
‘I cool down and stretch, because if you just stop cold turkey I find that's when the lactic acid really builds up. Honestly, good nutrition helps you recover – you've got to know what to eat and when to recover. I’ve consulted a sports nutritionist and I totally changed my diet two years ago to be able to train more and recover faster. Now I barely take any supplements – only when I don't have time to eat real food. I pretty much do it with real food and I feel great.’

RISING What tips would you have for readers who are into martial arts and looking to improve their kicking control?
‘Number one, dynamic stretching is really great for your flexibility. Dynamic stretching before your kicking workout and then d-stretching up to maybe twice a week after your kicking workout. Then it's all about repetition, proper repetition and sometimes that gets boring, but you know what? That’s what I did. It’s no secret, it’s really a lot of repetition and very specific techniques for control – things like keeping my leg up in the air, doing a high kick and suspending it. I'm putting my hand on the wall, bringing my leg up and kicking out; keeping it there to work the proper muscles and I just go higher, higher, higher. Over time it would get better, but I would work my kicks every other day, and I still do.’

WHAT NEXT? Watch the trailer for Kickboxer: Retaliation, out in cinemas March 2018.

Images by Bobby Quillard

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