(2008) dir. Mabrouk El Mechri
When was the last time you watched a Jean-Claude Van Damme film? For me, it was the hilariously awful Double Team (1998) in which he starred along with Dennis Rodman, and that was purely because it was Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark’s first American film (and surprisingly not his last, nor anyone who was affiliated with that film’s last for that matter).
Toward the late 1990’s, as the action film of the 1980’s, the Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren (anyone?), et cetera, et cetera indeed…was dying its ignoble death by being temporarily re-inflated by having the kings of Hong Kong action cinema coming to Hollywood and serving at least one film with Jean-Claude. John Woo got Hard Target (1993), Ringo Lam Maximum Risk (1996), and the afore-mentioned Double Team. There may well have been others, but you see, it was not something worth following.
So, when was the last time a Jean-Claude Van Damme film had a meaningful buzz? Was there any such thing until he worked with the Hong Kong directors? I don’t know. I probably don’t want to recount that I’ve probably seen more than my fair share of his films, all while not ever really liking him one iota.
And then this, probably his agents wet dream, a film that is considered “interesting” and in which not only do critics say that Jean-Claude can “really act”, but the film is essentially one in which he plays himself, a modified version of himself, but as a very sincere and sensitive human being. So, you not only get attention, appreciation, but you get projected depths and belief in the man himself.
JCVD is a conceit. It’s a film in which a down-on-his-luck Jean-Claude Van Damme returns to Belgium to get his life in order after losing his daughter in a custody battle. He’s a joke to a large extent, a guy who got into karate to no longer be a skinny wimp and who went on to movie stardom in the world’s garbage factory. He’s hugely popular at home, especially with losers who love action movies. And he walks into a bank to get an advance and gets wrangled into a heist and a hostage situation. And the cops think he’s part of the plot.
Ironically, enough, he’s the plot of the film, just not in the plot of the crime. He’s shown to be a beaten-down, good-hearted fellow, rich with humanity, and still able to smack down people at the age of 48 (his real age at the filming of the movie). And when the camera sits on his face, with its real pathos, you wonder, why didn’t this guy make movies in France or something? Like the movies of Jean-Pierre Melville? If he can really act, his aging visage shows the world-weariness that would be prime for some aging thief.
The movie is quite alright. My largest issue is actually with the cinematography, which is in these muted colors, and while not overly hand-held, has a feeling of more “art” than might have been effective. The film made me think of Olivier Assayas’ 1996 film Irma Vep, and maybe with a bit more of something along those lines, there might have been more of total epiphany here.
Who knows? If this film can’t kick-start Van Damme into something at least better, nothing probably ever will. In the right film, in the hands of the right director, he could be something more than he’s ever been, and he wouldn’t even need a fight scene to do it. This film certainly achieves it’s primary aims and Jean-Claude, how little we knew ye.