To the uninitiated, a movie called JCVD sounds as if it's about Jesus getting the clap. But action fans will recognize the acronym of kick-boxing action star Jean-Claude Van Damme the former European middleweight karate champ who became known as the Muscles from Brussels for headlining such middling fare as Universal Soldier and No Retreat, No Surrender. (See the 100 best albums, movies, TV shows and novels of all time.)
That was in the '80s and early '90s. In the past decade, as his films have gone direct-to-video, Van Damme's career trajectory has been direct-to-commode. So he must have figured he had nothing to lose when Brussels-based director Mabrouk El Mechri offered Van Damme the chance to play himself, more or less, as a hapless has-been who gets enmeshed in a bank robbery. He was right: JCVD which opens this weekend in New York City, and Nov. 14 in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Jose and Washington, D.C. is the best movie Van Damme ever made (granted, not the highest encomium), and a cogent, probing, funny critique on celebrity in its downalator phase.
Van Damme's athletic forte, kick-boxing, is like soccer in a boxing ring except that instead of kicking a ball you kick someone in the balls. The opening scene of JCVD gives the star a showcase and a workout. Van Damme dodges bullets and bad guys; he gets singed by a blowtorch and whacked by an opening car door. In return he uses all the artillery and furniture around him a machine gun, a revolver, a knife, a pole, a barrel, hand grenades and his fists and feet to kill or disable a couple dozen ruffians. The cool gimmick: the whole three-minute scene is accomplished in one shot; no cuts, no stunt doubles. (This is apparently unusual for Van Damme. One director who had worked with him said to me that the star employed 12 guys to double him in the more draining action bits, "like walking across a room.")
It's all part of a movie Van Damme is shooting, but something goes wrong toward the end of the scene, and when he complains to the Asian director, he is contemptuously dismissed. (Van Damme was the first Western action star to work with the best Hong Kong directors: Corey Yuen for No Retreat, No surrender, John Woo for Hard Target, plus two films with Tsui Hark and three with Ringo Lam. Few of them enjoyed the experience; it was like a surcharge on their visas to Hollywood.) This time, however, he begs to do a retake, though it will exhaust his well-sculpted but battered 47-year-old body. The director will have none of this: "He still thinks he's making Citizen Kane?"
Our depleted hero has also been getting heat from a custody case back in L.A. At the hearing, his ex-wife's attorney accuses him of being a poster boy for mindless violence: "How does this actor play Death? Let me count the ways: mangled under the wheels of a truck, strangulation, fracturing the skull, taking out the tibula, laceration, crushed under the wheels of a car, death by strangulation, crushed ribs, fracturing the skull, gouging the eyes..." It's a catalog that would send mothers fleeing from him in horror, and Van Damme's dwindling army of fanboys rushing to video stores.
The JCVD script, by El Mechri and Frederic Benudis , brings Van Damme back to Brussels where cab drivers and video-store hounds still recognize him, but nothing else is going right. His agent's screwing him, the court case has gone against him, he's low on funds... and now, as he enters a bank to try to cash a check, he finds it's been commandeered in a heist. The cops on the street figure Van Damme must have cracked and gone to the dark side, while the robbers are only too happy both to exploit his fame and taunt him for being unable to overcome their guns with his kick-boxing. Even Van Damme's mom believes he's the perp, not the victim, of the hostage takeover.
In Run, Lola, Run fashion, the hostage scene is played three times with subtle, crucial variations, each replay revealing more of the mystery. The climax has a few different outcomes too. But El Mechri's interest is in playing with the "real" legend of a washed-up star. It seems pretty unsparing. With the star looking puffy and played out, and with so many references to his off-screen philandering and drug use, the movie bears comparison to Mickey Rourke's turn in The Wrestler, which like JCVD played the Toronto Film Festival, and which opens in the U.S. next month. (It happens that El Mechri's previous feature, Virgil, was also about a fighter on the skids.) But JCVD is sharper, crueler, way funnier than The Wrestler. The movie is a vision of the wages of fame that's part parody, part exposé, part justification.
The clincher is an unbroken 6-1/2 min. take of Van Damme in close-up, as the star makes a confession of his personal and career sins. "What about drugs?" he asks. "Because of a woman well, because of love I tried something and I got hooked. ... I was wasted mentally and physically, to the point that I got out of it." At the end he gives his apologia and renders a harsh sentence: "It's not my fault if I was cut out to be a star. I asked for it. I asked for it, really believed in it, When you're 13 you believe in your dream. Well, it came true for me. But I still ask myself today what have I done on this earth?" Through his tears he shouts, "Nothing! I've done nothing!"
So Monsieur Macho ends up crying. It is the finest, most scab-pulling performance I've seen this year, and I'm not kidding. Van Damme has been known as a martial-arts legend, movie star and pain in the ass. But never an actor until now. By the end of his confession he could be like Robert Downey, Jr., playing Jean-Claude Van Damme. Except that there's less bravado, more real pain, because the Muscles from Brussels looks as he's giving one hell of an emotional battering to himself.
Except he's not, the director says in press notes. He's acting in the greatest action-passion scene Jean-Claude Van Damme has ever pulled off.See the Top 10 posthumous film roles.