People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, September 5, 2008
  TIFF Review: JCVD
I mananged to catch Jean-Claude Van Damme's new film, JCVD, at a Midnight Madness screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I'm still trying to process the fact that not only does Jean-Claude Van Damme have movie on the festival circuit (it also played at Cannes a few months ago), he has a great movie on the festival circuit.

In the early ‘90s, Jean-Claude Van Damme was one of the hottest action stars on the planet, combining good looks and impressive karate skills into a nicely marketable package, and his willingness to show off his physique helped him win over a lot of female fans. He made a string of hit action movies before fading into direct-to-video obscurity as “real” actors like Nicolas Cage became the new action superstars. JCVD is Van Damme’s attempt at reinventing himself after a decade in the straight-to-video wilderness, a satirical, brutally honest examination of himself and his career. And not only is it successful, I think it may be one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

I should mention that I was a pretty big fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme back in his early-‘90s heyday. I was in my early teens and just hitting my stride as a movie geek, devouring as many films as I could. Granted, most of these were schlocky action and horror and sci-fi flicks, but those summers I spent basically just watching movies with my best friend were very much my formative years as a movie lover. Action was my preferred genre, and Van Damme was one of my favourite action stars. Sure, his accent made pretty much all his dialogue awkward (and often unintentionally funny), and I’m certainly not going to sit here and argue that movies like Kickboxer and Double Impact are quality films by any stretch of the imagination (though Hard Target, John Woo’s first American movie, is a wonderfully over-the-top action flick, and I still think it’s Woo’s best Hollywood effort), but Van Damme had an easy charm about him that contemporaries like Steven Segal lacked, and I never got the feeling he took himself all that seriously. As ridiculous and violent (and ridiculously violent) as his movies were, they were also just fun.

JCVD builds on that sense that Van Damme doesn’t take himself too seriously and launches it into an insane stratosphere of meta-humour and viciously funny self-satire the likes of which I’ve never seen. Sure, celebrities have parodied themselves plenty of times before, but never like this. It’s one thing for George Clooney to have some fun with his ladies-man image, but it’s another entirely for Van Damme to mine his child-custody battles and history of drug problems and failed relationships for comedic and dramatic fodder.

JCVD stars Van Damme as a somewhat fictionalized version of himself, a fading action star on the cusp of losing custody of his daughter in a legal battle that his work in low-rent action flicks can’t quite pay for. He returns to his home country of Belgium (where he’s still considered a huge star bordering on national treasure) only to find out that if he doesn’t get his L.A. attorneys a big chunk of cash, they’ll drop his case. He stops by a post office-slash-bank to try to wire some money (which he doesn’t have) to his lawyers, and ends up walking into a robbery in progress, complete with bickering thieves and terrified hostages. The robbers try to turn Van Damme’s presence to their advantage, using him as a spokesman for their demands to the police, and before long the word’s gotten out that the Muscles from Brussels is holding up a bank, and a full-on media circus ensues.

I have a huge weakness for meta-humour as well as for celebrities poking fun at themselves, and JCVD has plenty of both. Except here Van Damme isn’t just poking fun at himself, he’s taking long, deep gouges. But as funny as the movie is – and it’s absolutely hilarious in parts, and unlike a lot of his previous films, it’s funny on purpose – there’s a real sadness at the heart of the JCVD character. He’s entirely motivated by his fear of losing his daughter, and at 47, his weathered face and perpetually-exhausted expression convey a surprising amount of emotion. Which brings me to the real revelation of JCVD, which is that Jean-Claude Van Damme can actually act. At first I thought maybe his shockingly good performance was due in part to the fact that for the first time he’s acting in his native language, but he’s just as good in the L.A.-set scenes, which are in English. But the real highlight is a truly remarkable five-minute monologue that Van Damme delivers to the camera that basically encapsulates JCVD’s themes of celebrity and fame and the price people pay to achieve their dreams, and what they do once they’ve achieved them.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention how well-made JCVD is. French director Mabrouk El Mechri is incredibly talented, and Van Damme’s never been in a movie that looked this good. El Mechri fills JCVD with cleverly composed shots, and the opening sequence, an elaborate, single-take action sequence that runs several minutes long, is incredible. If he builds on the potential he displays in JCVD, he could turn into one of France’s more interesting filmmakers.

I have an unfortunate tendency to build up movies I’m anticipating up in my head, and often they don’t live up to my brain-hype. As a lapsed Van Damme fan – I haven’t seen anything he’s done since 1998’s abysmal Knock Off – I’d been reading about JCVD for over a year now, and I had fairly high expectations going in. Not only was I not disappointed, I was floored.


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if you had watched any of van damme's post-theatrical oeuvre, your surprise at his ability to act would be greatly diminished.

although the ending is contrived and falls flat as overly didactic, "in hell" was a huge step forward for him, as many of his direct-to-dvd were smaller steps in that direction.

as the d-t-d phase drew on, there was progressively less action, less stuntwork, and far less focus on physicality. this makes several of them dull, but only because you go in expecting action.

good review, dude. i can't wait to see this film.
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