Like many 80’s action stars, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career faded away into obscurity some time ago, the majority of his martial arts magic relegated to bargain bins and the memories of dedicated fans. Still, although it’s kind of sad to see the Muscles from Brussels getting older just like the rest of us, the good news is that it has put him in a unique position to star in this clever, self-referential movie that pokes fun at what it means to be a celebrity.
As such, JCVD is unlike any movie that Van Damme has ever starred in before. It is a high-concept French film in which he plays a real-life version of himself, struggling to make ends meet and going through every day problems like a child custody battle. When he one day finds himself in the middle of a hostage situation at a Belgian bank, there is a misunderstanding and the police think he is the one doing the robbing. The real criminals can’t believe their luck: not only are they in the presence of Belgium’s biggest movie star, but he’s also taking the fall for them! Meanwhile Van Damme is trying to find a way out of the situation, despite the fact that most of his Hollywood training is useless with a real gun pressed to his head.
The movie starts off with a bang, as Van Damme flies through a hilarious, high energy action scene captured in one long tracking shot. Martial arts fans had better enjoy it, however, because it’s about as action-packed as the movie gets. We are merely on the set of his latest movie, where he is getting little to no respect from a young hotshot director — just one of the many mundane details of his (fictional) real life.
Make no mistake, JCVD is not a mockumentary, although it plays a bit like one. The first half of the movie is very funny, as people react to him and place expectations on him based on what they’ve seen in the movies. Van Damme for the most part is very quiet and patient with everyone, although he clearly is hiding some frustration and pain.
I have to say, his acting ability is probably the biggest surprise here. I guess it helps that most of the dialogue was in his native language of French, but there is one particular extended soliloquy in which Van Damme breaks down as he looks back on his life’s accomplishments and it was pretty damn rivetting (albeit a little melodramatic).
It is shot with a very cool style and some slick cinematography; I daresay it could be the best-looking film he has ever starred in. The camera likes to study his face using close-ups, revealing the wrinkles and lines that remind us of his age. The story is also told and retold from different perspectives in a really interesting way that keeps re-contextualizing what you’ve just seen.
Towards the latter half of the film, however, the concept kind of runs out of steam, as most of the interesting twists have played out and we are just stuck waiting to see how he will escape. One of the things that kind of bugged me is that although we are supposed to be seeing Van Damme in a somewhat believable, real world situation, the bank robbers are pretty stereotypical and cliched. The leader especially is made out to look like your average action movie villain, which kind of confuses things a bit. If we are supposed to believe that Van Damme can’t just stand up and kick some ass, then why give us a laughable bad guy that deserves such treatment?
Still, although the concept could have easily been a disaster, JCVD is way better than it has any business being. It’s clever, well acted, and well directed, and simply a lot of fun. I don’t think it’s quite the masterpiece that some are making it out to be, and I don’t know if it will necessarily revitalize his career, but it’s certainly more respectable than just about anything he’s ever done.
I doubt it will get a wide theatrical release here in North America, as it is simply not accessible enough for mainstream audiences (and… gasp… it has subtitles!), but at the end of the day, it’s something he can be proud of, and an acting risk that definitely paid off.
With Bruce Campbell’s similar upcoming movie My Name is Bruce, I have a feeling that this is a gimmick we will be seeing more of in the future, but I’d be very surprised if anyone pulls it off quite as well as this movie does. Long live JCVD!