A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #23

JCVD jjj
½ 

2008, R, 92 mins.

JCVD: Jean-Claude Van Damme / Lt. Smith: Herve Sogne / Bruges: Francois Damiens / Perthier: Norbert Rutili / Doctor Olivier: Bisback / Vigile: Karim Belkhadra

Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri / Written by Frederic Benudis, Mechri and Christophe Turpin.

JVCD approaches near brilliance in one crucial scene that occurs late in the film.  

In one, long, unbroken six-minute take we see Jean-Claude Van Damme, playing a version of himself, give a monologue to the audience that approaches melancholic sorrow and desperation.  Teary eyed, and very rarely breaking the cinematic fourth wall with the audience viewing this moment, Van Damme gives us a devastatingly frank and frequently moving confessional about what it’s like to be poor, become an overnight celebrity, accumulate wealth and prosperity, and how all of this came crashing down in a wave of drug addiction via a damning media culture in Hollywood that likes to both cheer on its self-made heroes while subsequently spitting them out when they become less appetizing.  Seeing the “Muscles from Brussels” struggle to fight back his emotions reveals his inner pain and pathos.  

Rarely has an action hero been so refreshingly self-effacing and vulnerable in a film. 

That’s the hook to JCVD, which stands for, you may have guessed, Jean-Claude Van Damme:  It marks one of the first true deconstructivist action films for the way it both celebrates the hero in front of the camera while showing him at his most meager and weak behind it.  At face value, the film is a basic action flick that maintains a healthy semblance of the most common attributes of classic examples of the genre (we have a hero, a series of villains, a series of standoffs and confrontations between the two, etc.).  Yet, what makes JCVD so much more compelling as an experience is the way it aims its crosshairs at the mythology of the action hero and the films they have populated over the last few decades.  These personas have always been largely – and narrowly – shown as muscle bound supermen that were absolutely impervious to all forms of normal human punishment.  Van Damme, in many of his previous films, was no exception.  However, in JCVD he utterly strips away layers of his past macho, gravity defying, and intensely macho characters and instead reveals a very human man with filled with self-doubt and loathing about not only his own image as an action icon, but also the industry as a whole that made him who he is today.  This is all provided in an absolutely vanity free performance that’s both disarmingly self-deprecating and shows an emotional facility and range we would have never expected from Van Damme.

Perhaps what makes the film all the more intriguing is just how close to home it hits for the actor.  Van Damme was always an action star of potential: He started his career in the mid-80’s in a series of mindless and disposable low budget action films and then eventually graduated to become a big box office action draw.  He also can take credit for bringing the critically raved John Woo to American sensibilities with 1993’s HARD TARGET and would go on to make a series of high profile action films well in the mid-90’s.  

Then…things began to unravel for the actor.  

He had real life marital issues, which may or may not have attribute with a bout with cocaine addiction in the latter stages of the decade.  Eventually, his film career fizzled to the point where I can recall laughingly looking at his face on oodles of direct-to-video fare on store shelves.  Last I recall, he has not made a popular American film that has seen a wide theatrical release in nearly a decade.   He's all but dead on the A-list Hollywood radar.

Because of all of this, Van Damme comes across as the poster boy of good sports in JCVD.  The film, helmed by French/Algerian director Mabrouk El Mechri, was originally supposed to treat Van Damme as a cartoonish buffoon.  Fortunately, Mechri had the persistence of vision to see past other failed drafts of the screenplay and see Van Damme as someone more substantial than his image has let on.  By blurring both fantasy and reality, JCVD works almost kind of like a pseudo-reality show that is an odd and offbeat hybrid of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, and MEMENTO.  Yes, it’s an action film, but it is also a very shrewd, cunning, and oftentimes scathingly funny satiric jab and celebrity culture and the fanatical basis by which we initially worship actors and later abandon our appreciation of them.  The film also works wonderful by picking apart action film clichés and formulas, right down to the obligatory final standoff between hero and villain where, in countless other past films, we know with unavoidable certainty that the hero will reign supreme.  In JCVD’s case, that sort of preordained plot development is not quite so black and white, nor is the hero all that…heroic…when facing danger. 

The film occurs in an alternate reality, I guess.  There is a Jean-Claude Van Damme in this film world that has made all of the films that we have grown to love...in one form or another.  The beginning of the film shows us Van Damme unleashing a maelstrom of Van Dammage on a series of faceless villains, all done in one breezy, intense, and ingeniously choreographed single take where he kicks, punches, stabs, and shoots himself through all forms of evil humanity.  Just when it looks like this inanely long unbroken action take will never end, one of Van Damme’s adversaries accidentally knocks over part of what appears to be a flimsy film set.  We learn that this is not the movie but a movie within a movie.  After struggling with the ordeal of performing in a physically grueling take that has been botched, Van Damme angrily turns to the director (who looks barely in his twenties) and feebly cries, “You know, it’s very difficult for me to do everything in one shot.  I’m 47-years old!” 

At this point the film considerably mellows down.  We learn that Van Damme has recently emerged as a struggling actor that has been finding it difficult to locate any decent work; his past successes in Hollywood are all behind him.  He’s approaching being penniless, thanks to a very expensive child custody hearing that he is shown participating in throughout the film.  After he loses custody of her to his ex-wife, Van Damme returns to his childhood home of Brussels (where he is still very much an iconic action star) to start over, but he is finding that his agent is not helping him very much.  He is not sure what is more alarming: the fact that his unscrupulous agent wants his client to appear in low budget B-grade flops that have two-thirds of their budget going towards his salary or the fact that Steven Seagal is slowly taking most of the parts he was once up for.  Van Damme, tired of appearing in one cheap dud after another, pleads with his agent to find him a good project where he would agree to be paid scale in hopes of a budgetary increase for effects and overall scale.  His agent laughs incredulously at him in response.  In one of the film’s funniest reveals, the agent mentions to Van Damme that Seagal has once again taken a project that he was interested in, but only because he agreed with the producers to cut off his infamous ponytail. 

When Van Damme makes his way to Brussels he heads immediately to a local post office in hopes of receiving a very important money transfer so that he can pay his final lawyer bill and get on with his life.  When he arrives the teller and guard are acting very strange.  The teller in particular gives him some real head shaking news that the post office is “out of cash.”  Van Damme is initially quiet spoken and patient, but when his polite and repeated attempts at asking for his money continue to get rejected, he gets frantically upset and agitated.  Shockingly, he soon discovers that he is in the middle of a planned hostage situation where the perpetrators hope to walk away with the office’s loot.  If things were not bad enough for the down-on-his-luck actor, the police and media show up and inadvertently think that he is the one actually committed the hostage taking himself.  

As the film unravels in MEMENTO-like fashion (it weaves in and out of chronological order and gives us multiple perspectives of key moments), Van Damme attempts to be a real life “hero” to the hostages by trying to keep them safe, all while trying very hard not to get his own head blown off.  He also attempts to be the negotiator with the actual criminals themselves, which proves to be a much more daunting task than even he is capable of handling.   As the pressure of captivity mounts, with no resolution in sight, JCVD cuts ways from the action to that previously mentioned game breaking monologue by Van Damme, where he shows behaviour that’s less akin to martial arts-skilled action heroes and more to that of a sad, beleaguered and troubled man that is scared shitless. 

JCVD has some familiar elements of the action/hostage standoff thriller genre, to be sure.  There is the scheming and mentally unstable villain, the good cop on the outside that is trying to make sense of it all, and a mob-like atmosphere on the outside of the post office that predictably emphasizes with the villains.  Yet, the irony here is more tantalizing, especially considering that the crowds of spectators immediately revere the culprit because they think that the culprit is Van Damme, a movie star hero in their minds.  The manner with which JCVD goes beyond its petty action film surface and emerges as a sobering and relevant dissection on the cult of celebrity is to its credit.  Part of the underlining sadness to the film is that the “character” of Van Damme in it is a man that is widely recognized for his failures and successes and is now really in the media spotlight in ways he never wanted as a “criminal.”  One of the real joys of the film is to see how the nearly insurmountable pressure of the hostage ordeal and the growing belief by outsiders that he’s the criminal and not a victim is affecting his mental state.  Van Damme here does not summersault, pile drive, and judo chop through his adversaries to clear his name.  There is considerably more whimpering on his part then hand-to-hand combat.  In the film’s most acerbic moment, he fantasizes that he overtakes the hostage takers in front of the police and crowds, after which he is greeted with overwhelming cheers, not to mention a high five from one of the Swat cops.  When we see the real version of this fantasy, Van Damme goes from a self-delusional action hero to a pathetic victim of circumstance. 

JCVD is one of the least pedestrian action films I’ve seen in terms of approach.  It adheres to the more rudimentary fundamentals of the genre’s playbook while radically dumping them upside down and mercilessly attacking them.  It’s overall demythologizing of the action hero milieu is one of its riskier and triumphant elements, triumphant in the sense that it’s daring and inventive and and risky in the sense that it takes a real life muscle-bound action star and radically strips him down to a normal plane of existence.  JCVD is still a work of pure make-believe despite its true-life trappings, but it feels more real because of its handling of its main hero.  And the way Van Damme strips away every minute morsel of his past formidable and Herculean cinematic image and distils it down to a fragile and unstable core in that amazing six-minute monologue is one of 2008’s most hauntingly intoxicating and revealing moments. 

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