In the decade since his last hit film, Jean-Claude Van Damme has made a string of straight-to-DVD action movies that most of us have never heard of. But his latest feature arrives on DVD after successful appearances at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals and a run at art-house theaters in the U.S. It’s a moody film that borrows Van Damme’s face, persona and string of initials for an idea as intriguing, at least in its first half, as Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.
In JCVD, Van Damme plays his weary self—still recognized on Belgian streets, but, at age 45, resigned to starring in terrible action films shot by young nobodies. One day, while at the post office trying to send money to his slimy agent, he and the other patrons are taken hostage by robbers, and the people outside the think that Van Damme himself is desperately sticking up the place.
While The Wrestler grafted baggage onto its character by casting a struggling Mickey Rourke, JCVD makes an explicit connection to its own star’s dark days: Van Damme is the character and the actor. And unlike The Wrestler, which maintains a great deal of sympathy for both Rourke and professional wrestling, JCVD is ambiguous, walking a fine line between sympathy and mockery. A literal hostage crisis is the perfect expression of Van Damme’s inner turmoil: His fellow captives expect him to be a hotshot, and people outside are there to gawk, rooting not for his personal success but for a spectacle of any kind. The holdup men put Van Damme on the phone to announce their demands, and when he offers advice for improving their bad dialogue, we can imagine that moments like this have played out on his movie sets in the past. This time the guns are real, but it’s an otherwise familiar trap.
The robbery is the film’s most inspired construction, but following the event too closely becomes JCVD’s undoing. Once the heist is in motion, the plot turns away from the hazards of celebrity and toward rote hostage management, like a less-effective Dog Day Afternoon. Van Damme is no Pacino, and the crisis’ one nutty flourish is a scene in which he is lifted—literally and figuratively—out of the situation to deliver a tearful, broken-down mea culpa directly to the camera. The lengthy monologue is done in one shot, and, like the film’s best moments, its intent remains ambiguous. Are we suddenly, after a career of cheese, supposed to consider Van Damme a serious thespian? Might he next attempt Hamlet or King Lear? Or is the whole scene a put-on, a farcical elegy for an actor who made millions by wiggling his butt and kicking cigarettes from the mouths of stuntmen?
The film’s poker-faced attitude is difficult to gauge. Without a telling smirk from Van Damme, it’s not clear whether he’s in on the joke. But give him a nod for opening himself up to any possibility. If only director Mabrouk El Mechri had continued exploring the meta-level above the action. Perhaps the 45 minutes that follow the excellent setup are disappointing because El Mechri found no depths to plumb within his star, but I’m not sure I believe that—even about Jean-Claude Van Damme.
DVD Release Date: April 28 Director: Mabrouk El Mechri Writer: Frederic Benudis, El Mechri, Christophe Turpin Cinematographer: Pierre-Yves Bastard Studio/Run Time: Peace Arch, 97 mins.