MONTREAL -- He's probably thrown just as many cinematic punches and triggered an equal number of onscreen shootouts and explosions as his counterparts, but there was a little bit of the fanboy in Jean Claude Van Damme when he talked about appearing in "The Expendables 2" alongside some of Hollywood's greatest action heroes.

"They're my heroes from the past," Van Damme said in an interview Friday to promote the new action blockbuster. "Even today, they're still my heroes. 'Rambo', 'Rocky', 'Terminator, 'Conan', 'Lone Wolf' -- I grew up with those movies."

"The Expendables 2," which opened Friday in Canada, brings together many of the stars of the heyday of action pictures -- Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li and Jason Statham.

The plot revolves around the recovery of weapons-grade plutonium from bad guys led by Van Damme's character, appropriately named "Vilain," although the story could easily be summed up in one of the commands from Stallone's character in the movie -- "Track 'em, find 'em, kill 'em."

Bullets fly! Explosions explode! Testosterone flows like a river!

Van Damme, his famed Muscles From Brussels still clearly visible in a tight T-shirt at age 51, enjoyed playing the bad guy.

"It was cool, it was great," said the former kickboxing star. "I was able to amplify the acting."

He focused on Vilain's ruthlessness despite the comedic elements of the film because he knew he couldn't be a carbon copy of his co-stars.

"I've got to stay a little different from the pack," he explained. "I have to fulfil more in the sense of being on the other side."

Van Damme had turned down an offer to be in the first "The Expendables" because he said he was tied up on another project and was leery about committing because Stallone hadn't finished the script. But Stallone won him over for the sequel.

He enjoyed working with Stallone, saying he was receptive to input.

"If you have a good idea with Stallone, he likes to listen. He's a cool guy."

While the movie has a lot of computer-generated effects, Van Damme said there were none when the punches were thrown.

He seemed to lament the fact that so much action in current movies is generated from a computer keyboard although he acknowledged that's what today's moviegoers grew up with.

Older films like his own "Bloodsport" from 1986, Stallone's prizefighting "Rocky" series and even the old Tarzan movies had to flex some real muscle to achieve their punch, he said, and Van Damme suggested that added to the movie experience.

"When you do that, your body is showing the effort," he said. "When you do a real move, a physical move, you can see your veins bulging and all that stuff."

Realism came with a price on "The Expendables 2," which is dedicated to the memory of stuntman Kun Liu, who was killled during filming. His family is suing Millennium Films and the movie's stunt co-ordinator.

Van Damme, who trains several times a week and eats lots of vegetables to stay in shape, acknowledged the risks taken by stunt people in films.

"We don't mention enough the stunt people in lots of movies. It's because of the stunt men (that) we are capable of making movies.

"I know how to move but when you have to go on fire or you have to jump 40 feet high, those guys are doubling for us. . . It's dangerous. The stunt people are essential to an action movie." He added they're essential even in regular dramas because they would be needed for such scenes as a character being shoved down stairs.

Van Damme says there was a lot of cameraderie on the "The Expendables 2" set but also some competition.

"We felt the friendship but also we felt the competition because we wanted to look good next to the other," he said. "It was a very healthy competition."

He shrugged and smiled slightly when the on-screen punchout between him and Stallone's character was mentioned.

"Yeah, it was a good fight," he said. "We can always do better. If you have more days, it can be more savage."