JCVD (2008) dir. Mabrouk El Mechri
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra
Good on Van Damme and good on Mabrouk El Mechri for humanizing and generating genuine sympathy for a laughable former action star. What makes Jean-Claude Van Damme worthy of cinematic exaltation? Why not Steven Seagal? Why not Dolph Lundgren? Even in roles like “Bloodsport” and “Sudden Death", in between his high kicks and splits, every once in a while there would be a glimmer of sadness in his eyes, a moment of truth and vulnerability behind those muscles from Brussels. Seagal never had it, Dolph never had it, not even Arnold. Chuck Norris had it, Charles Bronson had it, and so does Van Damme.
And so, what brilliant casting and screenwriting to produce an entire film devoted to deconstructing the celebrity of Van Damme, and saving him from the need to go on “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Outta Here”.
We’re in Brussels , Van Damme is broke and on the verge of losing a custody battle for his daughter who disowns him. All he needs is some money to pay his lawyer to get him back on the case. When he walks into a post office to withdraw some funds he finds it’s been taken over by a group of bank robbers. When they find out they have none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme as a hostage they convince the police that Van Damme is the perp as a rouse for their escape.
As the press gathers around the post office in a ‘Dog Day Afternoon’-like situation Van Damme is thrown back into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The event forces him to come to grips with the mistakes of his past and tests his ability to be a hero in real life.
JCVD succeeds solely because of Mr. Van Damme. He delivers an honest Mickey Rourke-like performance as a beaten down pathetic has-been with so much baggage behind him he just can’t escape from. Unfortunately director El Mechri doesn’t know how good a thing he has with his lead, as he continually imposes that Luc Besson-influenced French hyper styling.Van Damme is that good, and if told with a gentle and honest directorial hand, JCVD could have been as powerful as “The Wrestler.”
The cinematography is away overlit, highlights are blown way out of proportion, in what would be distracting even for a 5mins music video. So at 90mins, it had me shouting at the screen – “You dummy, turn the lights down!”
El Mechri is also unnecessarily clever with the narrative, establishing Van Damme as the perp, then doubling back on itself to reveal him as the victim. Unfortunately not enough comedy, or drama is revealed from this tactic and seems only to announce his presence as a director. This is no surprise though, it’s a first feature from the man, and it has the familiar markings of an immature rookie trying to make a name for himself. Even the showcase confession scene for Van Damme is dramatized with Spike Lee styling, as Van Damme breaks the fourth wall and begins talking directly to the audience while the camera and the man elevate into the air above the movie set lights. It’s a bold expression, which, I’d rather have seen told through regular dialogue, say, with his mother or ex-wife on the phone.
Unfortunately, despite the success of the film, I don’t see Van Damme returning to cinema in anything other than his usual brainless action vehicles. They may now get theatrical releases for a brief period of time, but we should consider “JCVD” as a one-off expression of himself as a legitimate actor. And that’s all we really need. Enjoy.