Ok, so why? You might think that I’m indulging some romanticism for action flicks watched in my teens? Yeah ok, I buy that. The allure of seeing the eponymous Jean-Claude Van Damme in a film, seemingly possessed of depth we wouldn’t expect from him, paid off with probably the most satisfying and interesting performance we might ever get from him. Who knows, maybe he’ll find his third act resurgence a la Bill Murray? Whatever the case this self reflective film from Belgian filmmaker Mabrouk El Mechri captures the long since faded glow of celebrity with keenly ironic eye whilst retaining considerable warmth for its beaten down protagonist.
Opening with a typical Van Damme action sequence El Mechri makes his intentions clear right off the mark, going meta with his film-within-a-film approach. We see Van Damme complaining to a young director about the difficulty of shooting long single takes at his age and is met with cold disdain. The director firmly places Van Damme’s cinematic clout in the past stating that just because “he brought John Woo to Hollywood” doesn’t mean that he holds any cinematic capital on this set. And although the above line of dialogue is purposefully repeated later in the film by other characters, in a positive way, it is apparent that Van Damme’s star has waned.
After JCVD’s prefix – incidentally, a staple of the kinds of pulp b-action films Van Damme is known for – the picture cuts to our titular protagonist being taken apart in the courtroom in a case involving custody of his daughter. This storyline, set in the USA, weaves in and out of the central narrative and provides a stark contrast with the reception Van Damme receives in his native Belgium where he is venerated as a national treasure (another twisting of reality as Van Damme is somewhat of an embarrassment to many of his countrymen). The first scene on Belgian soil sees two video store jockeys arguing the relative racism of various action films. Just as a staff member notes that Jean-Claude never starred in a film portraying Arabs as the bad guys, the man himself walks past and is grabbed for a photo op before going on with his business. The Belgian star, finding his funds frozen and bereft of ready money to pay even his taxi driver, has stopped to visit a nearby Post Office to try and remedy his cash flow problem. After an angsty emotional meltdown when refused service our ‘hero’ becomes embroiled in an armed robbery which quickly turns into a hostage situation. Cut to a Belgian swat team assembling, a growing crowd of vocal onlookers, and Van Damme holed up in the Post Office being party to hostage negotiations. The cops, presuming he is the main or only perpetrator, try to talk Van Damme down and the growing crowd start looking more and more riotous as El Mechri references the botched robbery turned media circus from Sidney Lumet’s 1975 classic Dog Day Afternoon.
The kind of close-to-the-bone story telling in which JCVD engages is nothing new, and in fact mirrors Darren Aronofsky’s recent Oscar snaffling feature The Wrestler (2008) which so closely mirrored lead actor Mickey Rourke’s career arc that it had a pseudo documentary feel to it. Even more so (to me) JCVD reminds of several of the character studies in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras which actually casts various celebs playing out, not only an OTT version of their popular media stereotyping (see Orlando Bloom playing up an arrogant but deeply insecure pretty boy persona), but in some cases the messed up details of their actual lives (see Les Dennis playing out a version of his very public cuckolding by younger second wife Amanda Holden). El Mechri has couched plenty of fact in this fictional work – Van Damme’s drug addictions, fiscal woes, relationship issues, and struggles to find films he will be proud of making are all canvassed – but it almost doesn’t matter as you can see the reality of the situation all over Van Damme’s saddened, world weary visage. The film even takes a stab at Van Damme’s real life penchant for aphoristic self-help statements in the prefix sequence. The prickly director from the opening vignette sarcastically references Van Damme’s use of the English word “aware” to denote self-awareness in a scene that trades on a similar confusion of languages as Bill Murray’s Santori Whisky ad shoot in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003).
Despite the rich set of references El Mechri’s vision is unique in both his choice of subject – I mean, come on, who expected a piece of cinema like this out of Jean-Claude Van Damme or even about him!? – and his treatment of the ‘reality vs fiction’ dichotomy. At one point in the film Van Damme breaks the fourth wall in a touchingly delivered monologue which sits comfortably within the picture but also feels like a distinct comment on the nature of this kind of filmmaking. Even the post-climactic resolution sees Jean Claude fantasising about dealing destruction a la his onscreen persona (in a double-take action sequence) before accepting the reality of a more humble conclusion.
Who knows whether JCVD constitutes a cinematic rebirth for its lead? Whatever the answer this is not only the best work he’s had the chance to be involved in but also a truly interesting piece of cinema outside of its kitsch entertainment appeal.
NB: The above portion of this review was first published at The Lumière Reader as part of their 2009 World Cinema Showcase coverage.
DVD Info + Special Features
This collector’s edition release really does the film proud. Alongside the excellent feature –presented in high quality (full) widescreen video and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio – we are also treated to a small but thoughtful package of extras.
Sure there are the usual stack of deleted scenes but the two documentary features included on the specials disc not only make up another 90 mins of footage but they actually shed interesting light on the production process and, particularly, the film’s subject JCVD. The making of feature shows how the director and the cast interacted with this celebrity who seemed out of his element in a serious, dramatic role. There are violent outbursts, admissions of severe insecurity, and a picture of sometimes tense but always supportive working environment.
The 50min ‘Day in the life…’ documentary is an extended interview with JCVD conducted by Canal Plus (French TV) Journalist Laurent Weil as Jean-Claude takes him on a tour of the Brussels he grew up in. This includes a trip to Jean-Claudes’s gym, the church hall where he attended cub-scouts, and the hairdressers’ that used to house his parents’ Flower store in his youth. The interview is funny, engaging and most of all candid. JCVD really opens up about his fears in confronting this project, about the insecurities his time in Hollywood have stamped on him as well as his somewhat uneducated philosophies of living. He comes off as an interesting guy who is re-finding his feet in his chosen profession.
Both these documentaries perfectly complement each other and also the address where much of the power of the film comes from – that is the vulnerability and openness of its protagonist. To round out the package is a small but diverse collection of teaser trailers for the film. This is a DVD set any enthusiast will be glad to add to their collection.
• 2-Disc Collector’s Edition
• Region 4 PAL
• 16:9 Widescreen
• Dolby Digital 5.1 / Dolby 2.0
• Languages: French/English with English/French Subtitles
• Deleted Scenes
• Making of JCVD (40min)
• A Day in the Life of JCVD (50min documentary)
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: M – contains violence and offensive language.
Duration: 93 mins
Genre: Docu-Drama | Action
Director: Mabrouk El Mechri (2008)
Actors: Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra, & Jean-François Wolff.