Getting out of the ‘eighties, it turns out, hasn’t been easy on anyone. It’s especially tough on the greased-up, hyper-muscled action heroes of the Reagan Era. All of them have suffered their ups and downs on screen and off, and have had to resort to drastic measures to maintain relevance.
Steven Seagal has maintained a work ethic unrivaled by any other filmmaker besides Woody Allen, turning out a movie per year, sometimes more. Whether or not these movies go straight to DVD, or are incredibly awful, is besides the point. Seagal has also teamed up on film with just about everyone BUT Woody Allen – you could connect all of Hollywood with the list of actors who have passed through Seagal’s films.
Sylvester Stallone has returned to his best-loved cinematic successes, only in revisiting them, he has made them insane. If you thought the Rocky and Rambo movies were over the top (no pun intended) before, how about a Rocky movie where he makes a boxing comeback at sixty, or a Rambo movie with the splatter-comedy of an Evil Dead film? Seriously, that Rambo movie must be seen to be believed. Next up is The Expendables, where he is teaming up with all of the greased-up, hyper-muscled, plastic-faced action heroes of the modern era.
Arnold Schwarzenegger took the most insane path of all, into politics. The idea of a professional actor so bad at his chosen craft that he couldn’t even be bothered after three decades of films to try a new accent, becoming the governor of one of the largest states in the country, was an idea so stupid that it actually worked.
Dolph Lundgren became a film director.
Rutger Hauer became an environmentalist, philanthropist, and author.
And then there’s Jean-Claude Van Damme.
The high-kicking leg-split-doing Belgian star of very many trashy action movies has now released a self-referential crime film called JCVD. (Yes, that title makes me think of at least seven unprintable jokes. No, I will not go there.) The title JCVD, as one might guess, refers to its star and subject, Jean-Claude Van Damme. The set-up is as follows: international action star Jean-Claude Van Damme is still appearing in trashy action movies at 47 – he’s still famous, but he’s unhappy and has serious money issues. He is involved in a painful child custody battle. To cover the costs, he agrees to appear in yet another bad movie, but when he arrives in his native Brussels to pick up the money advance at a post office, he walks right into the midst of a robbery. The police thinks that Van Damme has flipped out, and the robbers use that assumption to their advantage. Hearing that their beloved Van Damme has holed up in a post office with hostages, thousands of fans flock to the scene to call out their support.
It’s a clever, funny set-up, and it’s actually not a bad movie. It does have an entirely unnecessary multiple-flashback structure and it has a weird golden glow to its cinematography (the movie seems to have been shot through a melted Cadbury Crème Egg), but it’s never boring. The main problem is that it’s hardly funny. At all. The director and co-writer, Mabrouk El-Mechri, has a good eye and the ability to make inert scenes feel lively. What he does not have a firm command of, is tone. The premise of JCVD, and its absolutely terrific opening sequence (more on that momentarily), suggest meta-comedy along the lines of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. What those two movies have in common is Spike Jonze, who has a good eye but also an impish sense of humor. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation have their dark, tragic, poetic moments, but they also exploit their absurd premises to the fullest. JCVD can’t ever really escape a “woe is me” tone that no one going to see a movie with this premise really wants to see. To his credit, Van Damme turns in a solid, weary, occasionally even soulful performance, and really, of all the aforementioned action heroes I might have expected him to show the least self-awareness of them all. So this was a nice surprise. I like Van Damme – sure he’s kind of a douche, but he also kind of looks like my dad, and clearly on this evidence he is the best actor of all the ridiculously-accented action heroes.
If you’re the kind of person who has read this far, you’re the kind of person (like me) who spends a lot of time (maybe TOO much) thinking about these kind of movies, and you want me to tell you whether or not it’s worth renting already. The answer is yes. While the majority of the movie is unexpectedly low on superheroics, it’s because Van Damme largely gets that all out of the way in the opening credits sequence. He takes on a full army of unidentified assailants using his hands, his feet, a knife, a gun, fire, and anything else he can get his hands on, taking a ton of punishment himself, and rescuing a random girl (of course.) The background music is vintage ‘sixties soul, and Van Damme strolls around the various sets with a George Jefferson irritatedness that you will totally get a kick out of. The scene ends on a joke which I won’t ruin. This one scene alone is worth your time. I rewatched it twice after I finished the movie. I can’t find it anywhere online so you’re gonna haveta rent it.