Jean-Claude Van Damme, according to the Internet Movie Database, has made 40 films in the last 25 years. That’s almost two movies a year: quite a pace for anyone, but especially for a guy who kicks and punches — and get kicked and punched — for a living. Before “JCVD” of those other 39 films, I’ve seen one – “Bloodsport,” in 1988. And yet before “JCVD,” I would’ve said, with absolute confidence, that I understood who Jean-Claude Van Damme was, what he was capable of, and what to expect from a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. But then came this movie, and now I have no idea. Was it critic’s hubris? Was I wrong all along? Do I need to spend the next six days in a Van Dammathon, to catch up on what I’ve missed? Or is this funky little French film a different beast altogether?
Probably the latter. (I’m hoping the latter. If you think I’m wrong– if you think “Universal Soldier” and “Hard Target” and that one he made with Dennis Rodman are complex, layered, and terribly underrated films, be sure to let me know in the comments.) “JCVD” has the feel of those Adam Sandler projects that intend to surprise us by not being “Adam Sandler movies,” showing us that he’s capable of more than we thought. I liked “Punch Drunk Love” — a lot — and I like “JCVD,” too.
Van Damme plays himself – or at least a version of himself — here, and brings a sense memory performance to the screen that would make Lee Strasberg proud. Fresh off a plane from America to Brussels, just out of a brutal custody hearing out of money and out of ideas, he steps right smack into the middle of a bank robbery. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking — that sounds exactly like the setup of a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.) Because some doting fans saw him go into the bank right before gunshots are fired, everyone naturally assumes that Van Damme is robbing the bank. (Fans are great that way.) The actual bank robbers, who have royally botched the robbery, take advantage of this misunderstanding, forcing him to contact the negotiators and make demands as if he were actually robbing the bank.
Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, “JCVD” is more contrived than it needs to be by half. The color palette is muted and brown, for no apparent reason. El Mechri divides the film into segments with obscure titles, a la Quentin Tarantino, and also doubles back over his story, like Tarantino. In a truly meta moment, Van Damme rises above the movie to deliver a monologue among the light cans, and while the monologue is stunningly delivered and there to remind us that this isn’t an action movie and Van Damme isn’t an action hero, it’s really unnecessary and a little heavy-handed. El Mechri directs like he’s not really confident of his material, or his lead actor. But the material’s really pretty good, and his lead actor surprisingly good. You can’t help but understand El Mechri’s anxiety, though.
So what we’ve got is a sort of 21st century “Dog Day Afternoon,” refracted through French indie cinema and celebrity lenses. Like “Dog Day,” “JCVD” is often morbidly funny, bizarre, but also tense and urgent. Most of the bank robbers are half-hearted amateurs (they’re not really robbing a bank, just a post office that handles a lot of money orders and thus has a lot of cash on hand,) except for one who is a murderous egomaniac. The weird thing is, even though we know that the Van Damme in this movie is an exhausted, defeated, out of shape 47 year old struggling actor and not an invincible kick-chopping acion hero, we keep expecting him to step up and do something heroic. He doesn’t. We might as well expect heroics from the 20-something mom being held hostage – she looks like she’s in better shape than Van Damme. Our expectations are mocked throughout “JCVD,” and the wonder of this movie is, at least partly its ability to mock its audience without really offending us. I guess it’s good to be reminded that action heroes are fake, and the people who play them are helpless, just like us.
- if you’ve seen all 40 of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s movies. Heck, if you’ve seen even half of them. You know what, if you’ve seen more than three of JCVD’s films, you should see this one.
- if you’ve ever asked a movie star for an autograph, or a photograph, or an autographed photograph.
- if the prospect of a cardboard action star actually taking on flesh and blood – and turning in a decent acting performance with very few kicks or punches – intrigues you.
- if you think ALL of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s movies have been well-acted, complex, layered, or even plausible films.
- if you’re looking for a popcorn movie, starring a proven action hero, involving a bank heist and/or hostage situation, in which the good guys win in the end. Yes, all those elements are here. No, this is not the movie you’re looking for.
- If you’re locked in a bitter custody battle with Jean-Claude Van Damme.