Review: JCVD

Former A-grade (or at least B+) Belgian-born action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, cast as a version of himself, is having massive personal and professional problems. A bitter custody dispute (his daughter testifies that kids tease her because her dad’s career is a joke- ouch!), his career nowhere near what it once was, he comes back home to Brussels, where he is still treated with a certain level of celebrity status and adoration. In near financial dire straits, he walks into a post office to arrange a money transfer to pay his lawyer, and he unfortunately stumbles right into the scene of a robbery/hostage situation. Once a SWAT team and police negotiator (Francois Damiens) come to the scene, somehow it gets out that Van Damme is actually the ringleader of the robbers! Well, if you ask me, being known as a bank robber would be preferable to being known as the guy who made “Knock Off” and “Derailed”. So whilst the cops try to end the stand-off by any means necessary, we get a “Dog Day Afternoon” situation as the star’s fans come out into the streets in support of the former mega-star.

A lot of people were shocked by this 2008 Mabrouk El Mechri (who was predominantly a short film director before this) indie flick, as it gave Belgian martial arts star Van Damme a chance to show off his greatly improved acting chops in a film of a much more serious nature than any film that he had previously made. Having stuck with Van Damme all these years, I was less shocked. In films of reasonable quality like “Replicant”, “Wake of Death”, and especially “Until Death”, I had already seen this improvement. I had also seen how his increasingly weathered, beaten visage has somehow added grit to his performances. Van Damme really can act, when given the right role. Having said that, this does not mean that I found nothing of merit in this strange blend of frank honesty and caper movie. It’s a highly watchable film, though not much like I was expecting it to be (it’s smaller-scale than I thought it would be), nor as great as it has been touted to be. It does feature one absolutely extraordinary and much talked about scene, though, and the film is worth it for this one scene alone. It features Van Damme, looking directly into the camera and in many people’s minds, he’s pretty much baring his soul to the audience as he runs down the failures in his life and career, all the mistakes he has made. And what little he has to show for it. Personally, whilst I think there is indeed something very real and honest going on in there, I mostly think it’s just a really, really good piece of acting on Van Damme’s part. A lot of what he says is clearly unrelated to his real-life, but what he says about his film career is pretty true, or at least believable. If you read the tabloids you already know some of this stuff, but it’s still pretty affecting and shockingly frank at times.

There’s also several smaller moments of interest sprinkled throughout such as; The opening long-take of a seemingly still in-shape JCVD mowing down the baddies in his latest film project. It’s like a big FU to stuntman-happy Steven Seagal, because JCVD at least looks like he can still do his own stunts. The very plot, whilst different to what I expected (it’s really just a small-scale heist film with black comedy touches), is pretty damn funny. I mean the bright idea these crooks (one of whom looks alarmingly like John Cazale, one of many resemblances it has to “Dog Day Afternoon”) came up with initially was to rob a freakin’ post office, and now they’re gonna hold a faded action star for ransom? Hilarious. And whilst not everything was exactly as it probably is in the star’s real-life, it’s close enough to work for the film. Just wait until Van Damme’s parents get involved in the story, priceless stuff. There’s an amusing John Woo in-joke in the film, but the Seagal crack is a dud. He’ll supposedly cut his ponytail to get a role that JCVD wants. Um, yeah, 1992 called and they want to tell you about a film called “Under Siege”, Mr. Director.

I have to say, I’m not as enthused about this film as others seem to be. The repetitive structure is meant to be clever (a Kurosawa reference perhaps), but it isn’t, nor was it when Tarantino used it in “Jackie Brown”. Presumably shot on HD video, the cinematography by the impossibly named Pierre-Yves Bastard (who, like the director, mostly comes from a short feature background) is a major source of irritation for me. It’s an overly dark, muted, brown/yellow with heavy use of shadow to the point where the lighting is so appalling you can’t see a thing. And this appears to be a deliberate, noirish stylistic choice. I found it infuriating. I like the use of shadows in films, but not constantly, especially when one needs to see the actors faces. This whole thing is starting to become an epidemic if you ask me, and it must be stopped.

The main thing I got from this film is that being a Belgian film, it’s like his own people are the ones trying to save his career here, they’re all that’s left now that mainstream Hollywood has lost interest in him. Personally, I don’t think this film did much for his career in hindsight, but it’s interesting and I do think the film works best for his Belgian/European fans, it seems to be aimed more at them (there’s some definite in-jokes in there that a lot of his non-European fans may not pick up on, like his self-help mantra of ‘aware’).

This is a tough one for me, because it’s clearly one of his best-made films but it’s also not the most entertaining, in my view. It certainly isn’t the most exciting heist movie you’re likely to see (probably because it’s too silly to have any urgency or real danger involved). But there’s definitely something of substance going on here, and it’s well-enough made to recommend. Oh, and the end credits feature a godawful version of Bowie’s “Modern Love”, sung by someone with a Kermit the Frog voice. Terrible, ear-splitting stuff. Personally, I’d still rather watch “Bloodsport”, “Wrong Bet”, “Replicant”, or “Until Death”, but this isn’t bad at all.

Rating: B-


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