He Used to Be Somebody

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:11

    JCVD Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri at Amc Empire 25 & Angelika Film Center Running Time: 92 min.

    Watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle two decades after the Belgian star’s heyday is a surreal experience on its own. But watching co-writer/director Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD, a new film starring Van Damme as himself, is a real trip. In it, Van Damme (the icon) becomes Van Damme (the sentimental schlub), a deadbeat dad and has-been star. His sad post-celebrity existence, which consists of fending off fans and lamenting the shafting he’s getting from his agent, takes a sudden turn for the worse when he becomes embroiled in a bank robbery. From this cute premise comes a soggy but mostly winning character study periodically brought down by clichéd plot twists and its murky beer-bottle aesthetic.

    Those criticisms might have been moot if the film didn’t ask us to see it as a meta-actioner, one that elicits the viewer’s sympathy instead of applause for a man that was Van Damme. JCVD isn’t a Van Damme film but rather an abstraction of the Van Damme experience thus far, a predictably sloppy melodrama infused with a weirdly genuine performance from its star/martyr. Its opening scene primes the viewer with a hilariously wonked-out funhouse montage of images Van Damme’s name evokes. He tumbles his way through a Herculean obstacle course of gunplay and fist fights, finishing with a huff, a puff and a pout: “I’m 47 years old!” (insert joke about looking a decade older here).

    Van Damme’s getting too old for this sort of thing, and this is his chance to worry about the road not taken. JCVD thus abandons his previous films’ emphasis on honest action over fumbling “straight talk.” Here we get segues that transition between plot points with incomprehensible quotations like “Stone lands on egg, crushes egg,” making one wonder where all the film’s breezy action scenes went. As a result of its relatively inert plot, the film is hunkered down in two principle locations, the bank and the video store across the way where the police are staked out, leaving “the Muscles from Brussels” no chance to flex.

    Therein lies the film’s biggest self-imposed stumbling block: It wants to do more than just provide the kind of macho entertainment that has turned Norris, Seagal and Van Damme into instant punchlines, but it doesn’t have anyway to say it but in those terms. The film’s heist scenario is lifeless because screenwriters Frédéric Bénudis, El Mechri and Turpin Christian aren’t really interested in making the negotiator Christian (François Damiens) or the bumbling hostage-takers anything more than lively stick figures. The bunch just don’t have their hearts in the film’s main story, which is the worst possible scenario—considering how much emphasis is put on the agony and ecstasy of going through the motions. The one time they lay it all on the line is in an uncharacteristically messy scene where they allow Van Damme to break the fourth wall (sadly, not with his fists) to deliver an obviously improvised soliloquy. Between garbled anecdotes, he laments that he can’t be anything more than what he is; but what he is, in JCVD at least, just isn’t him at all.

    Nevertheless, for such a self-deluded vanity project, Van Damme brings the film to life, serving up a terrific lead performance. His crater-riddled puss is just as captivating as Mickey Rourke’s in The Wrestler, in a role similarly removed from its hero’s actions and obsessed with maudlin sentiment. Regardless of the lousy lines he’s fed, it’s great to see a guy formerly lampooned as an untalented brute catch a break.