I’m not a Van Damme fan. I think that’s important for you to know up front; I’ve never really gotten the appeal of his films (with a few exceptions, like Time Cop) and have always wondered why otherwise intelligent people lowered all their standards for these sorts of Z-level action films. Weirdly, the fact that I’m not a Van Damme fan made me even more curious about JCVD, his supposed reinvention film. What is Van Damme capable of when he’s not delivering roundhouse kicks instead of dialogue?
It turns out that Jean Claude is not a bad actor. There’s a monologue he gives, crying into the camera, that would be impressive even from a guy not known by the nickname The Muscles From Brussels. He’s capable of delivering real emotion and showing actual depth. Unfortunately he does it in a movie that never quite comes together, that never seems to know what it wants to be. And he continues to hide behind a facade that, for me, ruins the soul-baring moments of that monologue.
JCVD features a barely fictionalized version of Van Damme; he’s returned to Brussels from LA after a punishing custody hearing. He’s in big financial trouble and can’t even pay the lawyers who are handling his case. Desperate for work – he just got beaten out of a role by Steven Seagal, who impressed producers by cutting off his ponytail – he takes the next shitty movie available as long as the funders front him money ASAP. Stopping at a post office to pick up his wire transfer, Van Damme finds himself in the middle of hostage situation as a group of bickering thieves are trying to rob the place. They figure out that they can pin the whole thing on Van Damme, and the police believe that the financially troubled star is actually the guy behind the robbery. At this point it turns into a strange riff on Dog Day Afternoon (the lead crook even looks like John Cazale) mixed with the post-modernism of Being John Malkovich and Pauly Shore is Dead, and it doesn’t seem able to figure out if it wants to be funny or serious or both or something in between.
Not helping is the structure of the movie, a series of flashbacks that show how Jean Claude got into the situation. The problem is that once we get past the first flashback, the rest are totally redundant. The final flashback just shows how he got from the airport to the post office, and it stretches on for what feels like ten minutes.
Shot through a filter the approximate hue of Golden Crisp, JCVD is a very pretty movie, and director Mabrouk El Mechri has a nice eye for the hostage scenes, which are low on action but never get boring. Sadly, El Mechri the co-screenwriter doesn’t have enough ammo to keep his movie going, and his whiplash pivots from maudlin to funny only disorient. I don’t know how involved Van Damme was in the actual scripting, but you can feel his star veneer lower on that big monologue, where he addresses his problems with women and drugs, and then blames the women for the drugs. It’s like he can’t take responsibility for his own fuck ups, and for this to be a completely successful reinvention I feel like he needed to lay himself a little more bare.
Van Damme fans hoping for a punch out ending to the hostage situation will be disappointed, but the opening scene – a tracking shot in a new low budget Van Damme movie – is a complete marvel, and pretty much worth the price of admission alone. I like the restrained aspect of the film, and I wish that it had kept the tone of that opening – there’s a killer joke at the end of the tracking shot, and then some more funny bits with a dismissive, non-English speaking director – but the movie never quite hits those heights again. Still, even with the many flaws (and an ending that I think cops out in a big way), JCVD is a interesting effort that opens up a new side of the chop sockey vet and will introduce American audiences to a stylish new director, but it falls short of being as revelatory as it wants to be. Van Damme puts his best work ever on screen, but ironically the guy who never relied on a good script before is let down by one here.