Reviewed by: The Exile

Most people will spend too much of JCVD - an oddly wonderful vehicle for the Belgian action star Jean-Claude Van Damme - wondering if they’re watching a gloomy mockumentary, quirky biopic, action-movie satire or straight-up thriller. But anyone expecting the movie to reveal its true intentions will be disappointed: this shape-shifting picture by the young French director Mabrouk El Mechri is all, and none, of the above. Any attempt to separate the strands will only distract from the shady pleasure of watching Van Damme luxuriate in an emotion few macho icons dare to entertain: humility.

Image may be paramount, but really, what does Van Damme have to lose? Very little, according to JCVD; holding a dark mirror up to the last decade - a sad chronicle of drugs, divorces and direct-to-DVD - the movie constructs a veil of fiction anchored in truth. Playing a character a lot like himself, Van Damme (known as J.C.V.D.) arrives home in Brussels feeling particularly low. Jet-lagged and dejected, he wants only to lick his wounds after losing a vicious child-custody battle with his latest ex. His preteen daughter (Saskia Flanders) is embarrassed by him, his movie roles are being given to Steven Seagal and his agent refuses to pitch him for classier projects. The check to his attorneys has bounced and now the local ATM is refusing to cough up cash. Life could not get worse.

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And then it does. At the post office, he stumbles into a heist-in-progress and is taken hostage. At this point the movie becomes strangely becalmed; as the streets outside fill with law enforcement and curious fans, the drama inside becomes merely the context for a brutal examination of celebrity versus humanity. Pushing his star towards the psychological hinterland, the director coaxes a credible portrayal of washed-up hope, of an international punching-bag feted only by his own countrymen. It’s a persona he never meant to create and cannot escape, and audiences will divide over the movie’s controversial centerpiece as Van Damme is hoisted above the action to deliver an impassioned, direct-to-camera, six-minute monologue. This surreal charge through the fourth wall is both startling and unexpectedly moving as the actor recalls his early promise and subsequent downfall in confessional close-up. He knows the safety of ironic distance is granted only to those who, like Bruce Willis, have the box-office to pay for it.

But if the Muscles from Brussels can’t get no respect he can still get laughs, and the best scenes in JCVD have a loose playfulness that redeems the angst: an attorney presenting DVDs of the hero’s bone-crunching career as evidence he’s unfit to parent, and learning he has lost yet another important role to Steven Seagal because his nemesis “agreed to cut off his ponytail”. And if the director’s greasy, burnished palette is too self-consciously arty, and the star’s experiment with authenticity too overwhelming, there’s always the ass-kicking - an area few fans will fault.

Experimental and disorienting, JCVD reveals an actor grappling with the knowledge that his Hard Target days are far behind and all that lies ahead is more B-movie punishment for his 47-year-old body. This is brilliantly depicted in the film’s opening fight scene, an extended, movie-set sequence of flame-throwing, sniper-dodging and leg-breaking that pushes the hero to his limits. When he explains to the uppity young director that he’s no longer able to do these scenes in a single take, the response is delivered behind his back. “Just because he brought John Woo to Hollywood, he thinks he can rub my dick with sandpaper?” sneers the snotty novice. Damme right he can.

Reviewed on: 27 Dec 2008
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The Muscles from Brussels thrusts his personal life into the spotlight.
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Director: Mabrouk El Mechri

Writer: Frédéric Bénudis, Mabrouk El Mechri, Christophe Turpin

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra, Jean-François Wolff, Anne Paulicevich, François Beukelaers, John Flanders, Saskia Flanders, Dean Gregory

Year: 2008

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: Belgium, Luxembourg, France


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