When my wife saw me pick JCVD off the video store’s shelf, she gave me a look that was part confusion, part disapproval, and part disdain. Not that I blame her, mind you. After all, is there anyone who, as a result of such cheesy action titles and direct to video flicks as Death Warrant, Maximum Risk, In Hell, and Wake of Death, has become as undervalued, under-appreciated, and even self-parodic as Jean-Claude Van Damme, the “Muscles from Brussels”?
You might mention folks like Dolph Lundgren, Don “The Dragon” Wilson, and Mark Dacascos, but none of them ever achieved the high profile that Van Damme had throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s. You could also mention Steven Seagal, perhaps Van Damme’s closest peer, but Seagal never lived so colorful a lifestyle, did and said such embarrassing things, or had so large and public a fall from grace.
Failed marriages, affairs, drug addiction, child custody battles — all of that sordid material serves as the fuel for JCVD, which is part semi-autobiography, part self-exorcism, part post-modern narrative on the role of art in life, and nothing short of a career rejuvenation for Van Damme.
Van Damme plays himself as an aging, washed up actor who can only get jobs starring in low budget, direct-to-video flicks. Everyone treats him as a joke and a cash cow — directors, producers, even his agent. Fed up with the industry, bruised from a custody battle, and running low on funds, he moves back to his hometown of Brussels to make a fresh start. But that goes awry when he finds himself caught up in a botched bank robbery and hostage situation, and thanks to the ensuing media circus, everyone assumes that the desperate movie star is the main suspect.
JCVD works on mulitple levels. Do you want some scathing commentary on the movie industry? Some blistering satire about the artifice and emptiness of fame and celebrity? An exposé of the toll that the spotlight can take on someone physically, mentally, and spiritually? It’s all there, told in a non-linear fashion à la Charlie Kaufman and delivered with considerable-yet-subtle style by director Mabrouk El Mechri. And there’s even some action and humor thrown in, as well, be it the opening action scene taken from the set of Van Damme’s latest movie or one of the bungling bank thieves who turns out to be a huge fan.
But it ultimately works because of Van Damme, the actor and the human being. I know many people, including myself, who tend to sneer at celebrities when they lament the trials and tribulations of being a celebrity.
It’s difficult to have sympathy for people who do their darndest to be in our public consciousness — which oftentimes includes resorting to behavior that is repugnant at best — and who flaunt the copious amounts of wealth and status they receive as a result of being in our public consciousness, and who then complain or cry about the enormous amounts of pressure placed upon them. As such, we love to watch such celebrities fall from grace; we revel in their humiliation, be it a box office flop, embarrassing photos, or personal scandal.
There’s one scene in JCVD, where Van Damme, in his darkest hour, literally rises above the set, breaks the fourth wall, and in a speech that is part prayer and part monologue, runs through his life. He talks of being a young, idealistic karate student who runs to Hollywood only to find it bereft of the honor of the dojo and instead, populated by backstabbers. Of his many love affairs, and the way in which the media chewed him up and spit him out every time. Of his jetset lifestyle and drug addictions. Of the vacancy that fame produced, with little else. It could have easily been heavy-handed, self-rightrous, and preachy, but Van Damme, in his 49-year-old body and his haggard face, absolutely sells it because he’s simply telling the truth.
He’s lived every single thing, committed every single sin that he mentions. And when we see the tears inevitably flow down his haggard, aging face, it’s as arresting as it is uncomfortable because it’s no longer Van Damme the character or Van Damme the actor that we see, but now, Van Damme the man.
Indeed, Van Damme is something of a revelation throughout JCVD. Gone is the bluster that one might have expected, and in its place, a self-effacing charm that comes from the willingness to smash every preconception and symbol of status that his fame might have raised over the years. At various points in the film, Van Damme relies on the “knowledge” gained from from his action films to make it through the hostage situation — which, more often than not, blows up in his face. In one of JCVD’s more clever scenes, we see the hostage situation resolve in the sort of heroic, bad-ass manner that we’d expect from Van Damme, only to have the events rewind and play out in a manner that undermines that preconception.
As the credits rolled, I found myself appreciative of such self-effacement and deconstruction. In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, it’s refreshing to see a celebrity expose his personal demons, not to milk them or indulge in mere mopery and/or misanthropy, but rather to simply put them out there for people to judge one way or another. That JCVD handles such material with the appropriate amounts of humor and style, as well as pathos, is an even bigger testament to Van Damme and El Mechri’s efforts.
This article originally appeared on Filmwell on April 11, 2009.