Archive for December, 2008

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Review: JCVD

December 1, 2008

Wham Bam, thanks Van Damme!

Chances are if you were an adolescent male in the 90s, at some point you were a Jean-Claude Van Damme fan. And why not? Less sombre and serious than Steven Seagal and less of a sheer beefcake phenomenon than Arnold; it was easy for a prepubescent 12-year-old to imagine himself as the leaner, scrappier, Muscles from Brussels. His earlier films were packed with the types of scenes boys in the schoolyard loved to discuss or re-enact. There was the climactic match in Bloodsport that Dux wins after being blinded. The sadistic jungle training that prepared Kurt to fight Tong Po with shattered glass on his hands in Kickboxer

And who can ever forget when Devereaux grinds up Dolph Lundgren at the end of Universal Soldier?

Van Damme continued to solidify his status as an international superstar with films like Hard Target, Nowhere to Run, and Timecop. He brought talented directors like John Woo and Ringo Lam their first American filmmaking opportunities. For a time it seemed like he would have no problem matching the careers of Stallone and Schwarzenegger.

But as the 90s progressed, Van Damme’s films became more derivative and gimmicky (Dennis Rodman anyone?). Worse even, they became less profitable. The press began covering his personal life with the same gusto they’d reserved for his martial arts abilities a few years earlier. Rumors of spousal abuse, drug addiction and a public custody battle easily overshadowed the direct-to-video efforts Van Damme was cranking out in places like Eastern Europe where he seemed doomed to spend the rest of his days as a parody of himself.

Then something wonderful happened.

As if taking a page from one of his action movies, Van Damme decided to “bring it” to them, to fight fire with fire, to make it personal.

JCVD is a shining example of the metafilm. It delivers exactly what it promises, which is a lot of Van Damme in his current state: older, worn-down, struggling to live up to his image. The first shot of the film establishes this new Van Damme as he struggles physically during the filming of a long-drawn-out action scene. When the take doesn’t work, Van Damme takes it up with a director who simply can’t be bothered to deal with him. Ouch.

What follows is an average heist film raised to the level of art by Van Damme’s performance and willingness to allow his personal trials and tribulations to become part of the experience. After returning home to Belgium following a custody battle in the US, the prodigal martial arts master inadvertently becomes wrapped up in a robbery. Confusion and hysteria ensue when loyal fans, a SWAT team and the media arrive to investigate, all thinking Van Damme is the culprit. There’s something surreal in watching Van Damme being held powerlessly captive by a team of henchmen he’d have easily dismembered in any other film. And yet, the very existence of those other films works against Van Damme in this one when they’re literally used against him in court. Brilliant.

Director Mabrouk El Mechri and cinematographer Yves Laurent Bastard create grainy, sickly, overblown images which add a nice visual appeal and presents their subject in a way we’ve never seen him. The supporting actors all do good work, helping deliver some laughs along the way, but make no mistake, this is Van Damme’s movie first and foremost. Of the much-written-about soliloquy, I will say this: it starts with a strangely motivated camera move raising Van Damme high above the action but is easily redeemed almost right away by the depths of emotion and honesty the actor brings to it. It’s marvelous and completely unexpected. It should also put to an end any debate over whether or not the man can emote. Whether or not however, this marks the rebirth of Jean-Claude Van Damme as a serious actor will remain to be seen. After all, playing yourself under these circumstances might be incredibly brave, but it’s not exactly a stretch.


If nothing else though, JCVD marks the resurgence of a childhood idol for this moviegoer and delivers a heartfelt, ass-kicking good time.

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