Jean-Claude Van Damme
Like You've Never Seen Him Before
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Similar to Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-nominated comeback in The Wrestler in 2008, another startling second look at a man whom most of us could barely recall our first look was released in the form of director Mabrouk El Mechri’s less-publicized JCVD.
Marbouk El Mechri’s criminally underrated cerebral postmodern art film/action movie/industry satire makes you question just how on Earth directors have missed out on the natural charisma of Jean-Claude Van Damme over the last roughly twenty years. JCVD lampoons the nature of celebrity in ways that delicately blend narcissism and self-pity since Van Damme is in essence playing a thinly disguised version of himself with understated self-deprecating humor, regret, and pathos.
Regarding Van Damme's disappearance from blockbusters, obviously there were issues involving ego and temper along with drugs and drama and nonsensical quotations of which the actor references in the film. Yet surely these are the exact same issues we see making headlines with A-list actors here in the states who continue to be offered one role after the next after the next with DUI charges magically dropped to star in a blockbuster sequel, community service waived, couch-jumping overlooked etc.
In fact, if I was Jean-Claude Van Damme's agent, I would have pre-ordered the first 100 copies of JCVD to mail to filmmakers whose ability to blend drama and action (i.e. Michael Mann, Ridley Scott) seem to be a natural fit for the actor formerly known as “The Muscles from Brussels” (see below) in lieu of the routine head shots, reels, and resumes.
And far before the actor breaks down the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience in an emotionally moving confessional towards the end of the film, we feel as though that fourth wall had already been knocked down shortly after the picture began.
Of course, this all follows the wonderfully retro ‘70s style music and title sequence that plays over the film’s bravura opener that must’ve taken a ridiculous amount of time to story-board, choreograph, block, and film. In a display of movie magic and tongue-in-cheek craziness, the work launches us into what seems to be an over-the-top exhaustive parody or cinematic mix-tape of his past oeuvre as he battles dozens of characters through an overwhelming gauntlet that lasts for minutes in a single take.
Rightly complaining that at forty-seven, it’s extremely painful and far too much to complete in one take, we realize the actor is saddled with a director who could care less about Van Damme. Likewise, the onscreen filmmaker is one whom we get the feeling is pretty run-of-the-mill in his current career of making low-budget, poorly written, super fast productions overseas that go straight to disc as it’s been more than a decade since one of his works has been released theatrically in America.
Essentially, instead of the man he typified in cheesy cult favorites and guilty pleasures like Bloodsport, Lionheart, Double Impact, Hard Target, and Timecop, we’re presented with a portrait of the man who’s tired of playing a caricature or type.
Always being cast as the interchangeable hero and one who amusingly in the film loses work to Steven Seagal when the actor willingly decides to cut off that trademark ponytail, Van Damme ends up being offered work that usually casts him as war vet out for revenge.
In response, he fruitlessly pleads that fiscally, he’d surrender to scale pay in the far-less-lucrative but more rewarding work in a studio picture but investors and producers more than likely wouldn’t want to surrender the outrageous profits they can make in the essential “factory pictures” thrown together in the third world.
And ultimately, it’s in this point we understand that in the end Van Damme is damned if he doesn’t and damned if Van Damme does turn down or accept gigs since he’ll continue working to support his family and legal fees in his battle for a child who—tired of being ridiculed by for the films of her father—decides to live with her mother during a particularly unflinching child custody battle sequence.
This is exacerbated to humorous effect by the opposing attorney as he rattles off one extraordinarily VanDamme-ing laundry list of broken limbs, eye-gouges, strangulation, and death that have populated the action star’s cinematic career.
Yet it's a pseudo action JCVD film altogether and quickly into it, the star finds himself trapped in a Van Damme styled plot in his old Brussels neighborhood trapped with a small group of people during a robbery.
The largely foreign language film which flew way under the radar screening in select cities and art-houses late last fall is ultimately less of a typical Hollywood comedy a la Tropic Thunder, What Just Happened, or The Player and more one that illustrates better than the entirely fictionalized accounts like Inside Daisy Clover just what it’s like working within an industry that serves you up on a platter before ultimately chewing you up and spitting you out.
And while it can be argued that to present yourself as the subject in what is more or less a surreal docudrama can be a bit of a gamble in its egotistical presumption that a film should center on you to begin with, Van Damme’s bravery is commendable. In JCVD, he’s willing to go places and reveal things none of us would’ve expected making it far more honest, compelling, funny, startling, and sad than the self-congratulatory world of reality-television that floods the airwaves in America.
Admirably, although it does seem at times to be tinged with self-pity—always the professional-- Van Damme is an excellent sport throughout. He takes the blame for the infamous events in his past such as his bizarre tendency to interject strange philosophies in televised interviews and dealing with the double-edged sword of being a beloved public figure by a fans who alternately want him to stop and pose for snapshots but also feel they’ve earned the right to judge every aspect of his life.
Instead, intriguingly with the film, Van Damme pulls off a miraculous feat of both inviting us to judge him and then sending that judgment back out at ourselves in the most pivotal sequence wherein he speaks directly to us in an extended monologue in a way that makes us wonder how we would’ve responded to the same stimuli and opportunities yet also reminds us how foolish it is to judge in the first place.
The sequence is just one of several contradictions that make the film so supremely fascinating and intelligent. And this is especially true since the stylistically imaginative and impressive filmmaker El Mechri utilizes what could very well have been a traditional low-budget B-movie set-up about a heist gone wrong and a police standoff (right there in Van Damme’s hometown). Instead he manages to deliver a multi-layered picture that at its heart has nothing to do with the botched robbery and everything to do with a hostage who just so happens to be Van Damme.
Filmed largely in a cool steel gray color palette that emphasizes the harsh masculine tones of blacks, browns, and deep grays that suddenly flashes with some golden tinged color in what Variety indicated was most likely from “color bleaching,” the work is a knockout in its Blu-ray form from Peace Arch Entertainment with an amazing level of clarity and depth perception, zero artifacting along with excellent flesh tones and dark color separation.
Giving viewers the option of watching the film in either the original French version or via an English language track and one that also boasts Spanish and English subtitles, the disc’s one flaw is that it’s light on bonus features as we make due with deleted scenes and the original theatrical trailer. Although in the end, I guess it’s perfectly fitting for a postmodern work wherein-- by the end and although we feel he’s let us in quite a bit--Van Damme remains something of an enigma.
Thus, again he reminds us of the star he’s always been and the one we may have missed all along without realizing it. For, even as a reviewer who grew up with a healthy appreciation of martial arts films I screened with my older brother, I can barely recall the plots or sequences from his earliest work. However, having seen JCVD twice in Blu-ray form, I can tell you that I will never forget the man himself and I defy you not to feel the exact same way.
Therefore, inspired and intrigued-- I've decided to knock down my very own fourth wall and write directly to any readers in high places:
Attention, Hollywood: Jean-Claude Van Damme is more than ready for another close-up. Moreover, to Mr. Van Damme’s agent: get those screeners in the mail immediately as you’ve made a believer out of me that what we need isn’t another mindless sequel or remake but an action film with a bit more heart, soul, and that indefinable characteristic you can simply call JCVD. And now we return to other reviews already in progress-- back in critic mode, fourth wall rectified once more.