‘JCVD’: Fake Action Hero, Real World

JCVD (dir: Mabrouk El Mechri)

JCVD is not a biography, though Belgian-born Jean-Claude Van Damme does in fact play a martial arts champion and aging action movie star who returns home to Belgium while he’s embroiled in a brutal custody battle over his daughter and struggling with a film career sliding into cheap international flicks and direct-to-DVD productions.

It’s not exactly an action thriller, though there is a heist-turned-hostage situation a la Dog Day Afternoon, with JCVD smack in the middle and a growing crowd shouting their support for their favorite son (the cops assume that he’s the leader of the gang).

And it’s not quite a satire, though Van Damme allows director Mabrouk El Mechri to lay waste to his film career in sardonic comments and his life in self-lacerating scenes.

In the film’s opening, an elaborately choreographed long take with JCVD breathlessly taking out bad guy after bad guy with his bare hands (and whatever blunt instruments and discarded weapons he grabs along the way), he comes out the other end utterly winded. “It’s hard for me to do it all in one take,” he begs the arrogant, snotty young director. “I’m 47 years old.”

That’s the least of his trials. He’s gripped in a brutal custody battle for a daughter who is embarrassed by her failure of a dad. He’s losing parts to Steven Seagal and he’s teetering on bankruptcy. He can’t even get spending cash out an ATM. Which is what sends him to a post-office at such an inopportune time.

Jean-Claude Van Damme ponders his future
Inaction hero: Jean-Claude Van Damme ponders his future

JCVD is an action film where the flamboyant heroics occur only in fantasy and Van Damme’s most daring stunt is a self-pitying monologue dropped into the middle of the movie. His dramatic muscles are awfully creaky as he recasts his life story as the naive innocent corrupted by sudden fame and decadence. It’s hard to tell if it’s achingly pretentious, deadpan self-parody or merely Van Damme’s idea of screen test.

Yet Van Damme is surprisingly engaging as a version of himself who acts a lot more like a vulnerable human being than an action hero as he tries to survive an armed gang of unraveling personalities. It’s his first feature in French, his native language. And he manages to maintain self-effacing dignity in the face of director/co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri’s take on his troubled private life.

One thing is for sure: Van Damme has attracted international attention for his ambition and his uncharacteristic humility. Whether he can parlay that into a career resuscitation is another question. Word has it that he was playing the prima donna on his follow-up film, Full Love, which he shot in Thailand and directed himself. And how is he spending the hard-won capital from his recent career boost? Universal Soldier 3. It’s like he never left the B-movie trenches.

I also review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here:

“JCVD” is an inspired melding of action thriller, satire and biographical drama through the looking glass of a funhouse mirror. Van Damme plays a self-reflexive version of himself in an action film in which the flamboyant heroics occur only in fantasy, where his private life and spiraling career are fodder for sardonic commentary and self-lacerating scenes…. It’s an impressive stunt that pays off in an action film for art movie aficionados, a foreign film for the popcorn crowd. As long as they don’t mind reading subtitles.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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