Dolph Lundgren muscles in Hollywood [1991]

Dolph Lundgren, the towering six-foot-four behemoth who beat Sylvester Stallone senseless in "Rocky IV," has become one of Hollywood's fastest rising stars. A dedicated kyokushinkai karate stylist, Lundgren's latest film, "Showdown in Little Tokyo," gives him an opportunity to trade blows with Brandon Lee, the son of the most popular martial artist of our time, Bruce Lee. In the following Black Belt exclusive, Lundgren explains what it was like working with Bruce Lee's son, discusses his work on "Showdown in Little Tokyo," and talks about life as a "big star."

Tell us a little bit about "Showdown in Little Tokyo," which stars both you and Bruce Lee's son, Brandon Lee.
Dolph Lundgren: I play a Los Angeles police officer named Chris Kenner, who was born and raised in Japan. In flashbacks it's explained that his parents were killed by the yakuza (Japanese mafia) when he was about nine years old. He works for the police on the Asian task force and he's the only white guy on it - all the others are Oriental. Kenner speaks Japanese fluently, he lives in a very Japanese environment, and he practices martial arts. In the opening of the picture, Kenner gets a new partner, played by Brandon Lee. Together we have to tackle this crime wave in Little Tokyo, which is being spearheaded by a guy who has just come over from Japan. Of course, this guy turns out to be the man who killed Kenner's parents. Even though I don't remember what my parents' killer looked like, when I do finally meet him, I recognize him because of his tattoo. My character and the bad guy have an interesting relationship; it's not just fueled by hatred. There's a samurai kind of honor code that we have between us throughout the movie, even though he commits a lot of atrocities and crimes. I know that inevitably I'll have to meet him in mortal combat. At the end of the picture we end up dueling with Japanese swords. It's a buddy cop movie, but hopefully with some new twists.

There's a good deal of martial arts in the movie. That's a change from your earlier films, isn't it?
Dolph Lundgren: Yes. "Showdown" is a martial arts-oriented picture, and as such, it allows me to use my martial arts skills more extensively than in any other picture I've done. I used a small about of martial arts in "The Punisher," but never as much as in "Showdown."

How long have you been studying the martial arts?
Dolph Lundgren: Since about 1976, when I was 16. I started studying kyokushinkai karate in Sweden, and then trained under kyokushinkai founder Masutatsu (Mas) Oyama in Japan. It's one of the five big styles in Japan. I earned my black belt in 1981. Back then, I fought in knockdown tournaments, which under kyokushinkai rules is basically full-contact kickboxing. I eventually became the European heavyweight champion in 1980 and 1981. In 1983, I moved to the United States and stopped competing altogether. I still practice all the time though. I actually gave up karate for a couple of years, but now I'm back at it. Every year I go back to Sweden to attend a karate summer camp, where I teach about 100 or 200 teenagers with some old friends of mine who are all professional instructors.

Why did you start practicing karate?
Dolph Lundgren: When I was younger, like ten or 12, I had a lot of allergies. I was sick all of the time, and it made me very insecure as a kid. I couldn't really do a lot of sports because I was so weak. I guess karate was attractive to me because it had a certain physicality to it. It was different from other sports because it had that strong, kind of character-building side to it. And besides being a combat sport, it had another, more philosophical side, which I didn't really understand at that point. But I felt it, anyway, when I read about karate, and I think that attracted me at that age. Also, I think the body contact was something I always strived on, even when I was young. When I started, the contact made me feel good. As I improved, I learned how to score and protect myself without getting hurt, and that appealed to me.

Your co-star in "Showdown" is Brandon Lee. Everyone tries to compare him to his father, Bruce Lee. What were your impressions of Brandon?
Dolph Lundgren: Well, I didn't know his father, so I can't really compare their personalities, but I think that Brandon is a completely different kind of person. He doesn't come across as the "son of Bruce Lee." Brandon is trying to establish himself without his father's reputation, and that makes him work harder than normal.

Is he a talented martial artist?
Dolph Lundgren: Brandon is very acrobatic, very supple, and very agile - nothing like the way I fight. Kyokushinkai is very Thai boxing-influenced, and it uses a lot of knee strikes, elbow strikes, kicks to the thighs, and so forth. Brandon, on the other hand, uses his agility to his advantage. He has a lot of high kicks, flashy spinning techniques, and things like that. His martial arts seem to be more Chinese-inspired than anything else. He's not just a good martial artist; he also comes across as a very nice human being. There wasn't any B.S., or any big talk. He never said "Hey, watch out, I'm this and that." That's the kind of stuff that is usually a sign of a poor martial artist. But Brandon was good to work with. We had a pretty good rapport, and I think that will show in the finished product.

You're currently working on a picture with Jean Claude Van Damme.
Dolph Lundgren: Yeah, we're doing a film called "Universal Soldier." It's a military action/adventure film, and it should have some good fight scenes in it. This picture isn't martial arts-oriented like "Showdown," but the fight scenes will have martial arts. Mostly, "Universal Soldier" will have a lot of firefights with high-tech weaponry, but I know that Jean Claude is going to bring his martial arts to the screen, and I will too. I don't always use just pure martial arts on the screen. It's nice to be able to throw high kicks and all that, but what looks good on screen is using feats of strength in a fight. If you're a big man like I am, use your size as an advantage. It looks better, more realistic, for a big man to fight that way. And that's what I try to do. I try to incorporate some more physical moves, not just the martial arts techniques, but power moves.

Is it true that before "Rocky IV" - which was your first movie - you had never done any serious weightlifting?
Dolph Lundgren: No, I did do some. When I used to fight, I did some weight training in preparation for my matches. But it was more weight training specifically for sports, meaning it wasn't really designed to shape your body. Rather, it was to get more power. I did a lot of squatting and other power-building movies, not the muscle-defining exercises that bodybuilders do. But I really started doing a lot of bodybuilding before "Rocky IV." I really got into it, and for a while gave up my martial arts training. Now I try to integrate the two a little more. I like the feeling of speed and coordination in your body that comes with having less bulk. I prefer to feel that way rather than have just pure physical size.

Because of your tremendous physical stature and the action roles you play on film, most people wouldn't guess that you have a master's degree in science.
Dolph Lundgren: That's true. I earned a master's degree in chemical engineering from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and I spent a year at the University of Sydney in Australia, studying on a scholarship. Then I got a Fulbright scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. I actually gave up the scholarship to study acting in New York. That's a part of my past now.

With that and several successful films in your past, what's in your future:
Dolph Lundgren: In the near future I'm finishing off this picture with Jean Claude Van Damme, and then I'll begin work on another picture, which I'm planning on co-producing, called "Pentathlon," which is about a pentathlon champion. Pentathletes compete in swimming, running, fencing, shooting and riding. I like to make things a little different - you know, not playing just a cop or a soldier, but playing an athlete and being more of an underdog. Right now I'm just trying to build up my repertoire early in my career. I'm only 31, so I think that as a leading man, I still have 10 or 15 good years ahead. I'm trying to learn as much as possible in each film, and try to give myself a challenge in each film and expand my knowledge and skill.

Will you ever move away from action-oriented movies, like Arnold Schwarzenegger has done on occasion?
Dolph Lundgren: Oh, sure. I mean, even Arnold's comedies always have a little action in them. But I'd like to do comedy, and I'd like to do drama. I'd like to try everything. I look at the last five years as an education for me. I came straight from college and the dojo (training hall), and I didn't really know anything about acting or about Hollywood, which is a pretty rough place to exist in. So I've been trying to pick up as much as possible. I've worked with some very experienced actors, and I've learned a lot from them. With "Showdown in Little Tokyo" and "Universal Soldier," I think that finally I'll be able to come into my own a little more as an actor.