Movies Reviews Jean-Claude Van Damme

Rating: 81

Release Date: Nov. 7 (limited)

Director: Mabrouk El Mechri

Writers: Frédéric Bénudis, Mabrouk El Mechri, Christophe Turpin

Cinematographer: Pierre-Yves Bastard

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme

Studio/Run Time: Peach Arch, 96 mins.

When was the last time you watched a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie? Hard Target (1993) may have been the flick that brought Hong Kong genius John Woo to Hollywood, but the Muscles from Brussels has not been in the ascendant in a long, long while. Van Damme, who just turned 48, belongs to a different generation of action hero—the hyper-masculine, death-dealing martial arts master whose lady-killing ways don’t rely too much on nuance. These days, all our superheroes, double agents and fearless men who race on dangerous missions to save the free world, yada yada yada, have gone emo. Matt Damon? C’mon! (Actually, the Bourne Trilogy is pretty great, but it’s a different order of Things Blowing Up Real Good.)

Rating: 81

Yes, J-C has been consigned to straight-to-video limbo for a small eternity. Remember Replicant? Narco? How about Wake of Death? Until Death? Surely In Hell? You get the idea. Much like his 2002 film, released in Europe as Terror Train, Van Damme’s marquee market value was Derailed. But it sure is fun to read his IMDb page. Alas, what’s a studly avatar to do? Go emo, of course.

JCVD offers Van Damme the role he was born to play: Himself. Or a variation on his real-life self that plays the tension between screen persona and troubled middle-aged action hero in a way Charlie Kaufman could appreciate. Instigated by a producer and conceived by Van Damme fan and director Mabrouk El Mechri, the film makes liberal use of real events from its star’s life to spin a self-reflexive story whose telling seems to be equally inspired by Pulp Fiction (the basic narrative is replayed from multiple perspectives) and the acidic behind-the-scenes satire of Entourage.

Indeed, the movie opens with an archetypal action sequence: Van Damme on enemy ground, kickboxing, hand grenading and automatic weaponing a small army of swarthy terrorist-types to rescue a comely hostage. Cut! It’s readily apparent that it’s only a movie, down to the bored Asian director and the Eastern European location. We follow Van Damme as he argues with his agent about his roles, visits a courtroom where his own movies are used as evidence against him in a custody battle, and sense his growing vulnerability as he watches his star fade, along with the rest of his life.

But then, he ends up in a bank robbery. Hoping to pick up a wire from his agent to pay his impatient lawyer, Van Damme wanders into a stick-up/hostage situation almost exactly like in one of his movies. The shaggy crew of gunmen immediately use their guest celebrity as a decoy-of-sorts, forcing him to deceive the battalion of police outside into believing that he is the culprit, gone berserk after one cocaine binge too many. El Mechri fragments the scenario, so that bits of information are withheld, as the camera loops around the same events from different angles. The scenes are shot in lighting that makes every frame appear as if dipped in glistening mud, a tactic perhaps aimed at signifying JCVD’s movie-movie artifice, but perhaps more than a tad precious for the conceit. Unless it’s another punchline.

It’s that uneasiness between laughs and genuine pathos that gives the movie its real kick. When the drama suddenly suspends about an hour in and Van Damme rises up above the set on a lift to address the camera directly, all the self-deprecating footnotes gather unlikely force as the real Jean-Claude makes us, for once, feel his pain. His monologue, a literal cri de coeur, barely even needs subtitles to be effective. At the movie’s showing at a film festival in Sitges, Spain last month, there was no English translation provided. Still, with a tear-soaked confession—Je ne suis pas un animal! Je suis un être humain!—J-C proves that even a washed-up action dude can have his Hamlet moment, and kick it through the wall.

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