In this day and age of half-baked heroes, it’s good to see a familiar face. The Muscles from Brussels! And who would have thought he was such an acting powerhouse? However, it’s too bad that his latest
starring vehicle doesn’t even come close to the level of his acting. It is a testament, though, to his skills as
an actor that he can transcend above a lackluster film and prove that his
career is far from over.
JCVD is easily one of the most buzzed about films at the
festival this year. The industry began
to take notice at the Cannes Film Festival film market. From there, it started getting accolades
wherever it screened. In Toronto alone,
it’s been receiving a number of four and five star reviews.
Needless to say, my anticipation was rising with each
review. The trailer captured the spirit
of the film perfectly; an off beat character study about a man who was once on
top of the world, but has since fallen into obscurity and bad career choices.
Being the first Midnight Madness screening of the festival,
the theatre was understandably packed with rabid Jean Claude Van Damme
fans. It was a wonderful surprise to
see so many JCVD fans out in full force.
And while the man himself wasn’t in attendance, he did send along a
taped message to the crowd apologizing for his absence, which was a classy
touch. To introduce the film, director
Mabrouk El Mechri revved up the crowd.
Then the theatre went dark and the curtains rose.
Almost immediately I felt something I hadn’t felt since
watching Double Impact and Nowhere to Run as a kid. Pure glee.
A larger than life hero kicking ass left, right and center. Take note aspiring action filmmakers: if you
want to grab the attention of an audience, open your film with a five minute,
single-take action sequence.
Admittedly, it was an exhilarating way to re-introduce the audience to
Van Damme; it seemed like something we haven’t seen before, but at the same
time was very nostalgic.
From there, JCVD jumps right into the plot: Van Damme
unwittingly becomes involved in a heist at a Belgian post office. Stripped of the glitz and glamor that movie
stars are accustomed to, he is forced to come to terms with the fact that he is
essentially a nobody in the grand scheme of things. What’s worse, he can’t be the action hero because this is real
life; no prop guns, no choreographed fights.
The film beautifully juxtaposes Van Damme’s anguish as a
result of the heist with the anguish of a drawn-out custody battle that may
very well be the last roundhouse kick he can take. The filmmakers adequately juggle the different aspects of Van Damme’s
dilemma with equal dramatic and comedic panache. But by the third act, when the heist hits a fever pitch,
something went wrong and it completely destroyed my enjoyment of the film.
For the first two acts, the comedy and drama were given room
to breathe, to compliment each other.
By the third act, the filmmakers unsuccessfully combined the
genres. It was at that point in which
the flaws of the film came to my attention.
Aside from Van Damme himself, the characters were weak and
uninteresting, the main conflict (the heist) proved to be repetitive and didn’t
go anywhere nor develop the characters further. All the while I didn’t feel as if there was a real threat to
anyone on screen. And worst of all, I
lost any emotional connection with Van Damme that I had developed throughout
most of the film. By the end, I felt
pity for the man, rather than empathy.
Argue all you want, but I doubt the filmmakers want you to feel pity for
a character they’ve built up for the past ninety minutes. In this case, it wasn’t Van Damme’s acting
that faltered, but rather the story itself.
JCVD had a wonderful concept and executed it well in the
beginning. By the end, it started to
stumble over its own intelligence and dull, under-developed characters. But, as I’ve said time and time again, the
saving grace of the film is Jean Claude Van Damme. Speaking, for the first time on film, in his native tongue
(French), Van Damme masterfully becomes a man who is broken and defeated, but
maintains a odd quirky behavior which suited him very well. Yes, he’s essentially playing himself, but
there is a sense of melancholy in his eyes that one can’t just “phone in”.
Need more proof?
There is a four-minute monologue in which Van Damme (talking to the
camera amidst a flurry of action surrounding him) pleads with the audience,
asking for forgiveness and a second chance, explaining that he is only
human. With that in mind, the
filmmakers effectively incorporate his foibles into the structure of the film;
even going so far as to say that he makes horrendous straight to video pictures
in order to pay for child support, schooling and the like. Moments like that made me sit up and pay
attention because they were very interesting and very heartfelt.
When JCVD worked, it worked incredibly well. When it stumbled, it really pulled me out of
the experience of watching a childhood hero return to the silver screen. Thank goodness Van Damme had the chops to
save the film. Wow, I never thought I’d
say that in my lifetime.
6.5 out of 10