This movie put me flat on my ass. I absolutely did not expect this movie to strike me in the way that it did, both touching and amusing in even amounts. Jean-Claude Van Damme pulls it off, and it should have been more in the cheesy humorous vein of The Last Action Hero or the forthcoming My Name Is Bruce. Instead, what emerges is a heartwarming, captivating tale of an action hero collapsing in defeat. It’s not just an amazing character study of a fallen star or an indictment against the entire movie industry, but it manages to be about a man suffering a loss and trying to put the pieces of his life back together. It works almost as well as the movies that it borrows from, Dog Day Afternoon and Being John Malkovich. But like Sylvester Stallone doing Shakespeare or Steven Seagal without a ponytail, there’s just a slight can’t to the storytelling that prevents the movie from being great.
JVCD is the story of Jean Claude Van Damme on a shitty day. He’s lost custody of his daughter, who took the witness stand to talk about how she’s embarrassed because the other kids make fun of her because of her father and his antics. Van Damme returns to Brussels to visit his family and bask in the glow of being a major celebrity overseas. When his lawyer calls to tell him that his check bounced, Van Damme rushes to the bank to wire money. Suddenly he finds himself taken hostage by three desperate robbers who use the confusion to convince the police that, in an act of desperation, Van Damme is holding up the bank.
Director and co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri gets more mileage out of the film than he should thanks to his fairly capable storytelling ability and more importantly through the charisma of his leading man. Van Damme bares his soul in ways I didn’t think possible, essentially laying his life open for ridicule and scorn to show everyone that he’s just as human as the rest of us. While the robbery is a clever tool to tell the story, it only serves as a means to an end to delve into the many-layered disarray of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s life.
Most people know Van Damme like I do: a former action star who could do splits and talked with a funny accent. Every film he did required him to do the splits while wearing tight, package-enhancing shorts, then spin kick some guy in the face, preferably while in a ring of broken glass and/or fire, while Thai transvestites throw wadded-up bills at them. Usually in slow motion. It says a lot about a martial artist when his highest grossing films involves him playing either a video-game character, the Pittsburgh Penguin, or second fiddle to Dennis Rodman. As much as I like to joke about Van Damme, he made some killer fucking flicks. His raw athleticism and genuine charm carried him through some godawful scripts. He’s practically the mayor of Hangover Theatre, and almost without fail, I will watch one of his movies when it’s on regardless of whether he’s trying to sex up an Arquette or avenge the honor of Ogre. Bloodsport is still my favorite martial arts movie of all time and the bar to which I hold all fight movies.
While Kickboxer had him beating on a guy with wrists covered in broken glass, he makes the dude tap out before tapping out was even a finish move. All this makes the path Van Damme stumbled down all the more depressing. While the movie reflects much of Van Damme’s fall from grace, the truth is far more in the depths of gossip hell. Van Damme went through four or five marriages, lost custody of three children, suffered allegations of spousal abuse, and sold what little credibility he had making direct to DVD shame-kick flicks, snorting the profits directly up the Van Nostrils. While JCVD makes reference to the failed marriage and the poverty, it manages to delicately weave just shy of falling into Behind the Music territory.
The sheer absurdity of the situation helps keep the story relatively light. I mean, Jean Claude Van Damme is taken hostage in a bank robbery, which the police are convinced he masterminded. One of the robbers is a huge fan and at gunpoint makes Van Damme kick a cigarette out of a hostage’s mouth. There’s a certain buoyant giddiness because you’re watching a typical action movie situation, but instead of crawling through ventilation shafts or trying to bravely negotiate until the snipers can get off a killshot, Van Damme is tied to a chair, made to feel weak and powerless.
This is where the movie begins to dance meta-circles around itself like one of John Cusack’s puppets in Being John Malkovich. We have an action star, a man who actually was ranked nationally for competitive fighting and is versed is several fighting disciplines, who is unable to fight. He can’t save the day. It’s bad enough if he was still famous, but now there’s an extra layer of impotence because he’s lost his former sheen. As one of the many in-jokes in the film, Van Damme keeps losing parts to Steven Seagal. He’s become such a shadow of his former self that he can’t even out box office Ol’ Squinty McWalrustits. Add to the fact that his violent movie content was used as a means of taking his children away from him, despite — as he points out — the money his wife is trying to take in support is bankrolled by those very same violent films. Here you have a man beaten down by life. It’s not just a former high school quarterback unable to throw the ball anymore because of an arthritic shoulder; it’s more like he also has hooks for hands and he’s blind in one eye.
Most action movies would still use this as an opportunity to have him fight his way free just one last time, to prove he’s a man, defeat all the criminals, and become the hero. But part of what makes JCVD so captivating is its honesty. Van Damme just wants to get out of the situation the same as everyone else. His fame ends up more as a noose around his neck, a burden he has to bear that almost gets him killed a couple times. He just wants a chance to start again. There’s an excellent scene in the movie — among many — where his agent is pitching him a terrible action movie, one that will net him a guaranteed $6 million because Van Damme is still an international draw. Van Damme begs him to get him into a studio so he’ll get paid scale. He just wants in a real movie with a good script and a decent director. The agent balks, telling him he needs the money.
That’s where JCVD starts to crumble. It becomes a message film, where Van Damme actually breaks the fourth wall with a pleading monologue addressing how hard it is to be him. It’s about how everyone demands that Van Damme be an action star and how they won’t let him be anything else. How trapped he is by the expectations of fame and how his life has come apart and has been fought in the tabloids. While these are legitimate arguments, they’ve all been fought ably in the actual story we’re watching. But making a petulant soliloquy in an arthouse trick-camera movie totally detracts from the excellent story you were just telling. And it makes me think, “well, boo fucking hoo, Frenchy. We all got problems. Not all of us can make six mil doing splits across the whole dance floor.”
If left standing as a character study of a famous action star forced to face his own fading, this would have been as powerful as Dog Day Afternoon or Unforgiven. Instead, it over metas itself. It becomes about a movie about a movie about Jean Claude Van Damme. It diminishes the poignancy of Van Damme’s performance and makes it look more like a desperate bid for readmittance into the Hollywood hearts and wallets. Which is a shame, because Van Damme is spectacular. In the right circumstances, he’d be nominated for some kind of award, maybe not necessarily an Oscar, but perhaps an Independent Spirit or one of those Canadian dealies. He exudes so much natural charm and makes you remember why he’s more than just a dude who can high kick like a Rockette on crystal meth. I honestly hope Van Damme gets some work from this role. And I sure as shit hope it’s not another goddamn Universal Soldier sequel.
Brian Prisco is a burger whisperer from the hills and valleys of North Hollywood, by way of the fiery streets of Philadelphia. When not casting his slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in an attempt to make sense of this crazy little thing called love, he can be found with his nose in a book in an attempt to make a grown woman cry when he beats her in the Cannonball Read. You can pick a fight with him via email at .com or decipher his crazy ramblings at The Gospel According to Prisco. Hail Discordia!
JCVD / Brian Prisco
Film | November 18, 2008 | Comments ()