JCVD is Being John Malkovich for kickboxing fans, a cleverly stylish and scrappily well-done slice of meta-moviemaking that causes us to rethink Jean-Claude Van Damme, a screen presence who most haven’t considered in any terms for the better part of a decade. Few could more reliably open a movie in the early-to-mid 1990s, but Van Damme has fallen out of favor recently, with most of his films taking a quick (and deserved) path directly to DVD.
Van Damme plays “Jean-Claude Van Damme,” and surmising as to how much of the character is autobiography is one of the voyeuristic pleasures of the film. To be sure, this is not a vanity project—this Van Damme is a washed-up, past-his-prime action star who can’t get a decent job anymore. He’s lost a custody battle with one of his many former wives, and he seems forever stuck in straight-to-DVD hell. He returns to Brussels to try to get his life back together, but a banking errand finds him inadvertently walking into a robbery in progress—and when police misinterpret him as the ringleader, the whole thing turns into a bit of a circus. Inside the bank, however, Van Damme the action star is faced with a crisis in real life, and the dichotomy between the on-screen hero and the flesh-and-blood man provides further fodder for this surprisingly thoughtful and entertaining picture.
It sounds like a crackpot idea, but it somehow works—and not just as a joke or a gimmick. Now, it works on those levels too; Van Damme is admirably game and clearly has a sense of humor about himself, as evidenced by the self-referential material (including a running joke about him losing a role to Steven Seagal, who was willing to cut off his ponytail). And the idea of an action star sending himself up is a good one, though clearly not enough to sustain a film by itself (see Last Action Hero or Sidekicks—or, better yet, don’t).
But JCVD also stands on its own two feet as a smart and engaging indie flick. It is, first and foremost, a cool-looking film; director Mabrouk El Mechri has a terrific visual sense, and cinematographer Pierre-Yves Bastard (yep, that’s his real name) uses a blown-out, bleached-film look (complimented by hot pools of white light) to give the film a distinctive feel. Mechris’ compositions and camera choreography are equally impressive—particularly in the opening sequence, an action sequence in a single unbroken shot that is both thrilling (for the gymnastics of both Van Damme and the camera) and hilarious (in a nice extra layer of story set-up, the low-budget film-within-the-film that it’s part of is just a little off, with some badly staged punches, overdone foley work, and extras just a beat or two too late).
Mechri also (wisely) chooses not to cut during Van Damme’s finest acting moment, a brutally honest monologue, straight into camera, that serves as not only an effective kick into the third act (establishing, as it does, some real stakes and therefore genuine suspense and interest), but as a forceful poke in the eye to an industry that may have been underestimating the big lunk. This is a honest-to-God performance (in spite of the autobiographical overtones), and should be respected and acknowledged as such; clearly more comfortable speaking in his native tongue, Van Damme is likable, believable, and surprisingly sympathetic and charismatic.
Supporting performances are serviceable, while the screenplay (by Mechri, Frederic Benudis, and Christophe Turpin) is ingeniously constructed, and helped along by Gast Waltzing’s terrific 70s-style score. JCVD isn’t Oscar fodder, but it is a lot of fun—a decent little no-frills action movie that may pump a shot of adrenaline into a career that we, perhaps unfairly, had written off.
I originally saw JCVD in the theater, and I can report that it holds up—perhaps even improves—on second viewing. With the giggle-factor of Van Damme’s self-parodying performance out of the way, I was able to better appreciate the skill with which Mechri assembles this most unorthodox indie action/comedy. It’s a smart, funny, inventive and unexpected flick.