What would ‘JCVD’ do?


Pity the poor action hero. Like supermodels, they have a relatively short shelf life and attempts at prolonging their career seldom end well (for every “Rocky Balboa,” Stallone’s had a dozen “Avenging Angelos.”)

And for those who fail to break into that top tier, there is increasingly less room on the video store shelves filled with younger, hungrier (and less expensive) stars ready to roundhouse their way to a paycheck.

Or they resort to pimping out their brawn to comedy, hoping to appear ‘in on the joke’ of their indestructibility. Few have made it back from this tragic mistake unscathed.

Jean-Claude Van Damme has always inhabited this level of the action stratosphere, only briefly flirting with success in the early 90s.

He’s now a few years shy of receiving an AARP membership, and his stuntwork may require a longer recovery time (possibly aided with prescription medications).

So mentioning the latest Van Damme release in this column may be met with indifference, ‘JCVD’ is aiming more for the arthouse than the grindhouse crowd.

Playing a destitute, washed-up action star named Jean Claude van Damme, the actor finds himself involved in the middle of a bank heist/hostage situation right out of one of his films. It is here he faces his nemeses both external and internal.

As “JCVD” opens, the actor is going through the action-movie motions, twirling and pummeling as he’s done so many times before. But the second the director yells ‘cut’, his real battles begin.

He’s on the losing end of an ugly custody struggle (in one of the many funny moments, the prosecuting attorney enters Van Damme’s entire filmography as evidence to him being an unfit father).

Work-wise, he’s just lost an action gig to rival C-lister Steven Segal, who promised to lop off his trademarked ponytail for the role. When he accidentally stumbles into a hostage scenario while trying to withdraw from his dwindling bank account, action movie laws would have it that he find creative ways to crunch skulls and save the day. But this is where “JCVD” takes a wild turn into meta comedy that does not let the actor shy away from some of the uglier sides of his quasi-fame. It plays out like some unholy union of the Muscles from Brussels and Charlie (“Being John Mallkovich”) Kauffman.

Throughout, director co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri brandishes artistic flourishes that exist almost solely to remind his viewers they are not watching a typical Van Damme opus. They can grow tiresome at times (ok, we get that you’re a fan of overhead mood lighting. Must it saturate every scene?)

But Van Damme himself (never one noted for his nuance) keeps us interested. And just when the film itself starts to stretch thin, he delivers a monologue so achingly personal ( and most likely, accurate), that it’s impossible to turn away. It’s as though the star shows us his scabs inflicted not on camera, but off. Then proceeds to pick at them right before our eyes. It’s both uncomfortable and compelling.

Mickey Rourke is currently being buzzed about for his self-referential role in “The Wrestler,” which I have yet to see, but Van Damme deserves the same adoration here (I can’t believe I’m actually typing this) for his mesmerizing soliloquy on his fame and infamy.

The film itself can veer off into the mundane, but its star has allowed us further into his celebrity psyche than perhaps any other. Not bad for a man whose resume includes him playing kickboxing twins twice as well as co-starring with Dennis Rodman and Rob Schneider.

~ by usesoapfilm on November 30, 2008.

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