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Action stars usually have the opposite of Bolt’s problem: Fawning fans can have a difficult time separating the actor from his characters, and the celebrity exhausts himself trying to live a normal life with all its real-world baggage. Jean-Claude Van Damme takes a weird though not unsatisfying step toward addressing this issue in JCVD, writer-director Mabrouk El Mechri’s fictionalization of Van Damme’s current lot as a semi-washed-up movie hero.
JCVD is conceptually similar to the recently released My Name Is Bruce, in which Bruce Campbell plays himself as…a semi-washed-up movie hero. But whereas Campbell hams up his direct-to-video status, Van Damme’s portrait is more melancholy than mocking. It’s not entirely without self-deprecation: JCVD opens with a movie-within-a-movie, a long tracking shot following Van Damme as he films his latest bit of roundhouse-kicking dreck, his Brussels muscles on full display. The punches are miles from connecting, and a set wall falls down; when Van Damme approaches his director with concerns, the boss remarks to his assistant, “He still thinks we’re making Citizen Kane?”
Bad projects aren’t Van Damme’s biggest worry, however. He’s also losing a custody battle for his daughter in the States, with his ex’s lawyer using the star’s violent repertoire in his argument: “How does this actor play death? Let me count the ways!” the attorney (John Flanders) bleats, then throws down DVD after DVD as he describes each film’s slayings. “Can I go to the bathroom?” Van Damme asks the judge, once it’s clear that the litany won’t be ending soon.
Van Damme returns to his hometown in Belgium for some relief from his Hollywood woes. But another problem, a bounced check to his lawyer, leads him into another mess when he goes to a bank and finds himself in the middle of a robbery. And when the cops see their hometown celeb’s face in the window, their conclusion is, naturally, that he’s instigating the holdup. Fans surround the building in support regardless: “Jean-Claude! Jean-Claude!” they cry, eager for a glimpse.
El Mechri does a little time-shifting to show scenes from one perspective and later replay them from another, a neat way to pique and then satisfy your puzzlement instead of committing you to a singular view. Of course, Van Damme isn’t the criminal here, but he does help the bad guys (most entertainingly by suggesting common movie ploys) in an effort to play the hero for real. In the meantime, other hostages ask him to perform karate moves; at one point, the film backs up to show his cab ride to the bank, the female driver assaulting him with conversation and accusing him of being rude when he tells her he’s really tired. Everyone around Van Damme looks at him and sees a god. The camera, however, shows the truth: He’s depressed, broke, hasn’t slept in two days, and can’t see a way out of his expired lifestyle.
An extended monologue during which the actor is elevated above the robbery and speaks directly to the camera will likely make or break the film for you: Van Damme, “wasted mentally and physically,” goes on about essentially being a pawn in the Hollywood system, constantly screwed by the media and stripped of the respect he earned in dojo as a karate master. It’s indulgent, certainly, and brilliant, occasionally. The speech is an especially odd moment in a generally odd project—the balance of pathos and humor never seems quite right, and the end is as puzzling as any of the rest. But it’s a remarkable Van Damme performance, and perhaps the first one you won’t forget the minute you leave the theater.