What do you do for a popular, once bankable action hero whose star has plummeted and whose current films bypass theatrical release and go straight to video? Why, you resurrect him of course. And thankfully that’s just what director Mabrouk El Mechri has done in his new film, JCVD. Fans of “The “Muscles from Brussels” can rejoice — Jean-Claude Van Damme is back! But this time out, don’t expect business as usual.
The words “vulnerable” or “acting” or “humorous” are not those I associate with the man made famous by his performance in Bloodsport, and who is known primarily for delivering whiplash, head-high kicks and jaw-dropping horizontal splits. Action films aren’t primarily concerned with digging beneath the macho surfaces of the actors/characters involved. Van Damme, for example, invariably appears taciturn in his roles. In JCVD, he reveals another side of himself; a man with chinks in his armor — unprotected, human, flawed, down on his luck and yet capable of self-deprecating humor. He is required to act, and he does a “Damme” good job of it.
Van Damme’s life is at low ebb. Professionally, he’s getting passed over for roles which now go to his rival, Steven Seagal. Physically, he’s older and not in the best of health. He is haggard and worn down with deep grooves and lines etched onto his handsome face. Personally, his private life is a shambles as he fights a losing battle to win custody of his daughter. Financially, he’s stone broke and his credit cards are maxed out. The poet Longfellow once said, “Into each life some rain must fall.” In Van Damme’s case, it’s more like a torrential downpour.
Things get worse. He returns home to Brussels hoping to start over fresh after an exhausting and demoralizing time spent in America filming a grueling, low-rent movie and waging a nasty custody battle in court. Instead of the peace and quiet he hopes to find, the hapless Van Damme walks right into a bank robbery in progress and winds up igniting a media firestorm. Within minutes the police and SWAT team descend on the bank and his adoring fans surround the block clamoring for a standoff between their beloved, homegrown idol and the authorities.
JCVD is an inventive mix of docudrama, satire, action, and comedy extended into an imaginative “what if” plot: “What if a washed-up action movie star stumbles into a real-life crime scenario like a bank robbery?” Here life imitates art with some unexpected and surprising twist and turns. And it all hinges on Van Damme’s impressive courage in allowing his personal life to be plumbed for the base material which El Mechri and co-writer Frédéric Bénudis then re-fashioned into a fictionalized drama. He clearly has a sense of humor and enjoys poking fun at himself, his own image, and his reported troubles all while exposing the foibles of stardom and celebrity.
The editing deserves special mention too. We all know that in Hollywood and in the movies, appearances can be deceiving. That very notion is what drives the story in JCVD, and El Machri uses editing to create that deception, in much the same way that Tarantino and Ritchie do. The director introduces the initial robbery scene which convinces everyone that Van Damme, succumbing to intolerable pressures, has snapped and in desperation, robs a bank. But moments later, he retreats to a place in the story just before the initial scene began and we are given the real story. El Machri is nimble in his use of this technique in the film, springing surprises on us throughout the story.
I’m fortunate to live near an independent theater where the ushers actually introduce the film to the audience prior to the showing. When the usher concluded his introduction with the declaration, “Jean-Claude Van Damme is back!”, the audience cheered. Rightly so. Cleverly conceived, expertly constructed, and thoroughly entertaining, JCVD returns to us an older and wiser Van Damme in a new guise. He’s no longer just Jean-Claude Van Damme the action hero and movie star. Now, he’s also Jean-Claude Van Damme, the talented actor.