dir. Mabrouk El Mechri
I have never been much of a Jean-Claude fan. Sure, being the the all-American youngster that I was I watched and loved his dumb action movies in my formative years. I always preferred Stallone and Schwarzenegger, though (obvious much?). I thought Van Damme was too much of a pretty boy to be taken seriously as an action star. After watching Mabrouk El Mechri's recent pseudo-biographical action comedy JCVD, I now realize that Van Damme is also too talented an actor to be taken seriously as an action star.
El Mechri's film opens with a spectacular single shot action sequence. In a non-descript, snowy setting, Van Damme karate chops his way through a series of faceless baddies. Despite the virtuoso camera-work, this sequence is purposefully cornball. It is also dotted with the occasional purposeful mistake (missed punches and the like), but is not so over-the-top in its cheesiness that it veers into parody. It could very well be mistaken for a scene from one of Van Damme's cookie-cutter action films. As the scene ends, reality enters. Van Damme complains to his young director that he's too old to perform these stunts in one take. The dismissive Asian director, through his translator, shoos away the old action star. We next see Van Damme at a child-custody battle in which his previous violent movies are used as evidence against him being a fit father. Wow, what an interesting, unexpectedly, unashamedly introspective role for Van Damme.
The first few scenes promise so much more than the film eventually delivers, however. After traveling to his home country of Belgium, Van Damme inadvertently walks in on a robbery. The cops soon mistake him for the perpetrator and hijinks ensue. Much to his chagrin, Van Damme finds himself stuck in one of his movie scenarios. Problem is, the robbery section of the film is nowhere near as engaging as the the other more introspective elements of JCVD and only slightly more so than the action/thriller movies it emulates. It is pretty standard hostage movie stuff.
This section does have one helluva Van Damme monologue delivered directly to the camera, however. In it the aging star laments all his mistakes, and wishes for his old life back. He wants to be with his parents. He is afraid of dying. Although this sort of scene has great potential for pretentious wankery, it is surprisingly affecting. [My girlfriend mocked me when I got a little misty-eyed, but I swear I just had something in my eye.] All credit is due to Van Damme's performance. This is a speech straight from the heart. It actually brings to mind Bela Lugosi's "I have no home" speech from Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster.
Although JCVD skirts greatness, it never quite finds a home there. El Mechri et al are too enamored of Van Damme's previous efforts to stray too far from the action movie tropes they seek to deconstruct. Nevertheless this will undoubtedly be The Muscles from Brussels' last really good movie.