Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra. Rated R.
What would Jean-Claude Van Damme be without his roundhouse
kicks? That’s the question JCVD, a
loosely biographical slice of cinema vérité about the so-called Muscles From
Brussels, dares to ask, and you might be surprised at the answer.
Van Damme, once a bankable action hero but lately
relegated to straight-to-DVD irrelevance, has founded his reputation on swift,
acrobatic beat-downs and the self-satisfied one-liners that follow. (“Au
revoir, f**ker,” from 1993’s Nowhere to Run, was his labored retort to Arnold’s “Hasta la vista, baby!”) Yet Van
Damme always insisted that his dramatic skills dwarfed those of his
muscle-bound peers, and considering those included Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal
and the Governator, I’m inclined to agree.
Don’t take my word for it. In JCVD, Van Damme delivers
a devastating performance as a
downtrodden caricature of himself, a washed-up star living paycheck to paycheck
and resigned to his fall from grace. It’s the kind of character who could be
played for cheap, self-deprecating laughs – just ask Bruce Campbell, who
recently lampooned his own B-movie stardom with a characteristically cartoonish
turn in My Name is Bruce – but
Van Damme infuses the role with such emotional complexity that he seems at
times almost unrecognizable.
He is a man concerned less with his fading marketability
than with the meaninglessness of his tattered legacy. What has he accomplished
in life? To hear him tell it, absolutely nothing. He is a middle-aged man
embroiled in an ugly child-custody battle, haunted by the drug abuse that
felled his career and hoping for a second chance – to be a better father,
perhaps, or even a better son. He returns to Brussels as a sort of last-ditch
ploy, maybe to rediscover the path that once led a naïve, 20-year-old karate
champion to Hollywood. Once there, he learns that old rival Seagal has stolen
his latest gig. Some things never change.
When Van Damme stumbles onto a post-office robbery near
his childhood home, one wonders if the aging star has one last gasp of heroism
left. But no. Having scaled Olympus and come down the other side, he is a mere
mortal praying to make it through the day. Even in his most introspective
moments, he finds dashes of ironic humor, as when one of his captors nervously
asks for an autograph while waving a gun in his face. But Van Damme is no
longer interested in perpetuating alpha-male myths, even if the people around
him seem far more intrigued by the myths than anything else he has to offer.
Some have likened Van Damme’s performance in JCVD to the
self-effacing cameos Bruce Willis once used
to reinvigorate his own flagging career, but there is a brutal honesty in this
portrayal that Willis, for all his tongue-in-cheek turns, has rarely achieved.
Van Damme projects the unaffected weariness of a man who has been there, done
that, and is ready for the next chapter of his life to begin. If JCVD is any
indication, maybe it already has.