Rating: 81Release Date: Nov. 7 (limited)
Director: Mabrouk El MechriWriters: Frédéric
Bénudis, Mabrouk El Mechri, Christophe TurpinCinematographer: Pierre-Yves
Bastard Starring: Jean-Claude Van DammeStudio/Run Time: Peach Arch, 96
When was the last time you watched a
Jean-Claude Van Damme movie? Hard Target (1993) may have been
the flick that brought Hong Kong genius John Woo to Hollywood, but
the Muscles from Brussels has not been in the ascendant in a long,
long while. Van Damme, who just turned 48, belongs to a different
generation of action hero—the hyper-masculine, death-dealing
martial arts master whose lady-killing ways don’t rely too much on
nuance. These days, all our superheroes, double agents and fearless
men who race on dangerous missions to save the free world, yada yada
yada, have gone emo. Matt Damon? C’mon! (Actually, the Bourne
Trilogy is pretty great, but it’s a different order of Things
Blowing Up Real Good.)Rating: 81Yes, J-C has been consigned to
straight-to-video limbo for a small eternity. Remember Replicant?
Narco? How about Wake of Death? Until Death?
Surely In Hell? You get the idea. Much like his 2002 film,
released in Europe as Terror Train, Van Damme’s marquee
market value was Derailed. But it sure is fun to read his IMDb
page. Alas, what’s a studly avatar to do? Go emo, of course.
JCVD offers Van Damme the role
he was born to play: Himself. Or a variation on his real-life self
that plays the tension between screen persona and troubled
middle-aged action hero in a way Charlie Kaufman could appreciate.
Instigated by a producer and conceived by Van Damme fan and director
Mabrouk El Mechri, the film makes liberal use of real events from its
star’s life to spin a self-reflexive story whose telling seems to
be equally inspired by Pulp Fiction (the basic narrative is
replayed from multiple perspectives) and the acidic behind-the-scenes
satire of Entourage.
Indeed, the movie opens with an
archetypal action sequence: Van Damme on enemy ground, kickboxing,
hand grenading and automatic weaponing a small army of swarthy
terrorist-types to rescue a comely hostage. Cut! It’s readily
apparent that it’s only a movie, down to the bored Asian director
and the Eastern European location. We follow Van Damme as he argues
with his agent about his roles, visits a courtroom where his own
movies are used as evidence against him in a custody battle, and
sense his growing vulnerability as he watches his star fade, along
with the rest of his life.
But then, he ends up in a bank robbery.
Hoping to pick up a wire from his agent to pay his impatient lawyer,
Van Damme wanders into a stick-up/hostage situation almost exactly
like in one of his movies. The shaggy crew of gunmen immediately use
their guest celebrity as a decoy-of-sorts, forcing him to deceive the
battalion of police outside into believing that he is the culprit,
gone berserk after one cocaine binge too many. El Mechri fragments
the scenario, so that bits of information are withheld, as the camera
loops around the same events from different angles. The scenes are
shot in lighting that makes every frame appear as if dipped in
glistening mud, a tactic perhaps aimed at signifying JCVD’s
movie-movie artifice, but perhaps more than a tad precious for the
conceit. Unless it’s another punchline.
It’s that uneasiness between laughs
and genuine pathos that gives the movie its real kick. When the drama
suddenly suspends about an hour in and Van Damme rises up above the
set on a lift to address the camera directly, all the
self-deprecating footnotes gather unlikely force as the real
Jean-Claude makes us, for once, feel his pain. His monologue, a
literal cri de coeur, barely even needs subtitles to be
effective. At the movie's showing at a film festival in Sitges, Spain
last month, there was no English translation provided. Still, with a
tear-soaked confession—Je ne suis pas un animal! Je suis un être
humain!—J-C proves that even a washed-up action dude can have his
Hamlet moment, and kick it through the wall.