The last time I remember a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie getting an actual studio-sized marketing campaign was the 1996 release Maximum Risk. The last Van Damme movie I actually watched was 1994’s Timecop, and I even enjoyed it. Since that time Van Damme has gone on to make nothing but direct-to-DVD and international action flicks. With an addiction to cocaine, reports of spousal abuse and four separate wives (one of them he married twice) Van Damme has a checkered past and all of that is utilized to create the fictional story of JCVD, a film I am surprised to see Van Damme didn’t write himself, but it truly speaks to the audience as if Van Damme is saying, “See, I can actually act.”
There are two key scenes to JCVD that really get to the heart of the story. The first is a sprawling opening sequence featuring a four minute long one shot as a 47-year-old Jean-Claude Van Damme (he plays a fictional embodiment of himself) endures a feature-length movie’s worth of action as a sniveling young director relaxes in a chair behind a monitor. The scene ends as a set door is slammed shut causing the wall to fall and the director yells cut. Van Damme expresses the fact that he is getting too old for this shit in very much a self-realizing Roger Murtaugh kind of way. The second scene of note is a one-on-one with Van Damme and the audience, and it is this scene that actually proves Jean-Claude may have more talent than just bone breaking jabs, but its true intentions are a bit cloudy.
The film centers on an aging Van Damme dealing with a messy divorce while flying back and forth from Los Angeles and his hometown of Brussels. However, in an attempt to hit up the bank for some much needed cash to cover his lawyer fees he gets caught up in a real life hostage situation. The twist to the narrative comes as Van Damme is confused by the police to be the hostage taker and used by the bank robbers for his fame in an attempt to conceal their identity.
“Central unit 27 – Jean-Claude Van Damme’s robbing a post office. I need back-up,” says the lead detective over his squawk box. The moment is mildly surreal, but in this day and age it isn’t altogether unlikely. Mixing comedy and drama, the “Muscles from Brussels” proceeds to savage his public image using enough evidence from his personal life that the film feels like Van Damme is clearing his conscience and ready to start anew. Unfortunately, while the film is mildly entertaining it feels as if it has come 15 years too late.
The emotional high point of the feature comes in the form of the previously mentioned one-on-one. In the scene Van Damme is lifted into the rafters of the staged set for a private moment as he lets his emotions loose. The tears flow in a believable exposition and it is a fine piece of acting, but then again – is it really acting? Either way, without this scene I don’t think the film is worthy of much discussion and would have been entirely generic as it never shoots too high in terms of satire. However, with this scene the doors are opened to a myriad of interpretations. The film cuts so close to what you would assume to be the truth it almost makes it feel like some sort of therapy session. The one-on-one goes on a bit long, but as you are watching you truly feel as if you are watching a man completely breakdown before your eyes.
Outside of the early action set piece and this dramatic clearing-of-the-air JCVD doesn’t offer a whole lot more than what you would expect. It’s already been compared to Dog Day Afternoon in terms of the situation involved, but that’s really where the comparison ends. This is a decent bit of entertainment best suited for a weekend rental, but I can’t help but wonder if it was made as a piece of entertainment or a legitimate late term attempt at rehabilitating a tattered image. If the reasoning is the latter it may be a bit sadder than I originally expected because while Van Damme does a good job parodying himself it doesn’t do much in terms of proving his ability to play anything more than JCVD, a role he has nailed since Bloodsport in ’88 and people grew tired of by ’96.