Underseen Movie: ‘JCVD’ – The Muscles From Brussels Lays Himself Bare

I have never really been a fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme. He has the moves, but he has never been much of an actor. I still vividly remember watching “Cyborg” with my brother and a friend of his on the family VCR years ago. My dad even watched it with us, and he could not stop bagging on Van Damme throughout the whole monstrosity which was made by those creative geniuses from Cannon Pictures. This is some of what he said:

“This is the single worst actor I have ever seen in my life! His face is completely immobile! He’s like Stonehenge!”

Oh, the memories! You’d figure after us seeing “Cyborg” that none of us would ever bother watching a Van Damme movie ever again, but he was everywhere for much of the late 80’s and early 90’s. “Bloodsport” was nothing extraordinary, but those fight scenes were pretty awesome.

“Death Warrant” was one I only saw because my best friend from high school wanted to check it out. It was alright, but this is probably being generous. I got a little pissed when that nerdy kid with glasses wanted to watch “Star Trek,” but the hot lady played by Cynthia Gibb did not want to bother. She would rather be screwing Van Damme’s character while he was taking a break from working undercover in a prison to catch a killer. Seriously, not all “Star Trek” fans are this geeky!

But following the commercial failure of “Universal Soldier: The Return,” Van Damme went from being a Hollywood star to being thrown into the hard to escape realm of straight to video movies, and he also went through drug problems and several divorces. I always wondered how people like him or Steven Seagal deal with going from big Hollywood action movies to direct to video crap which continues to define their careers to this day. I imagine they are not happy being in this movie star limbo. On one hand, they are still making a living, but at the same time I keep thinking they must miss where they were before Hollywood abandoned them in the wake of several box office disappointments.

JCVD” is a fictionalized answer to this question, and is not your typical martial arts ass kicking epic. Van Damme plays himself, and we can what years of drugs, court battles, and many B movies, most of them lousy, have done to him and his face. As the movie opens, we see him arguing with the director of his latest movie, but the director is more interested in throwing darts at a postcard with the Hollywood sign on it then in listening to a man whose only distinction is getting John Woo to come to America and make “Hard Target.”

We see Van Damme at court fighting for custody of his daughter (played by Saskia Flanders), and his ex-wife’s attorney presents his movies as arguments against him as a person. They pile up so high to where he excuses himself to go to the bathroom while the titles are still being read off. His problems keep mounting as he can’t get cash out of the ATM, and his lawyer calls saying he still owes him money. Then his custody suit hits an impasse when his daughter says she doesn’t want to live with him because, whenever a movie of his is on television, she gets picked on by all the kids at school. Even worse, he just lost a film role to Seagal just because he offered to cut off his ponytail.

So, Van Damme heads back to Belgium to reconnect with his roots and where he came from (hence his nickname “The Muscles from Brussels”). He is still treated as a big star and a hero back home, and as a man who helped put the country and its people on the Hollywood map. But soon after, a hostage situation erupts at a nearby post office and, yes, all hell breaks loose. At first, it looks like he is robbing the post office, but events are seen from different perspectives, and it turns out he has arrived at the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, he can’t rely on his martial arts moves to get him out of this situation. Van Damme is not seen as an action hero here, but as a regular man who is caught up in a situation not of his making.

“JCVD” is presented as a comedy/drama hybrid, and while the tone is a bit uneven, there are some very funny moments. We see one of the robbers buddy up with Van Damme and talk to him about his movies, and he even gets him to show off one of his classic moves. While the other robbers couldn’t care less, this one wants his autograph. In the meantime, the townspeople have come out in force to support the fallen celebrity for what he is doing. In many ways, the movie is a look at the crazy nature of fame and a celebrity is forever trapped in a prison because of it.

The big question I had when I went out to see “JCVD” was this; has he gotten any better as an actor. Even Los Angeles Times film critic Sam Adams in his review of this movie said that “most of the acting in Van Damme’s films takes place below the neck.” Surprisingly, the answer is yes, he has. In fact, in “JCVD” he is really good playing a fictionalized version of himself. My dad’s description of him as “Stonehenge” does not apply to him here, and while he will never be Laurence Olivier or Sean Penn, this movie is a big step up for him creatively speaking.

The movie has one tremendous moment of pure raw emotion from Van Damme when he suddenly rises above the film set and starts talking directly to the audience. His monologue lasts for several minutes, and he talks about how he always wanted to be a movie star. All these years later, he feels as though he is being punished for it. Granted, he admits to his mistakes like taking drugs, and I felt like he is still paying a price for his usage even while he is staying clean. The star never fakes a moment during this scene, and the scene is alone worth the price of admission. Van Damme has said doing this movie was like therapy for him, and I have no doubt about that.

The concept of “JCVD” is by no means original. We have seen many movie stars play themselves and have jokes played at their own expense to show they have a healthy sense of humor about their image. But while we have them take this route like John Malkovich did in “Being John Malkovich,” I can’t think of any others who have put themselves on the line like this. I can’t see Chuck Norris doing this as I am certain he would rather do an action movie where Mike Huckabee is President and he has to rescue him from being held hostage by pro-evolution terrorists.

If there was one big problem I had with “JCVD,” it’s that its subtitles were at times almost impossible to read. The movie, directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, is shot in a grungy style which is very close to black and white but not quite. As a result, the subtitles which are presented in white lettering almost blend completely into the background, and I had to keep leaning forward to better see what was being said. Considering how many of my friends hate subtitles and would rather watch movies dubbed in English, this certainly does not help.

You really have to give Van Damme a lot of credit here. Not many action stars would even risk being seen like he is shown in “JCVD.” Here, he lays himself bare to show us the man he has become through many mistakes and bad movies. I came out of it with a renewed respect for him, and it makes me want to see him get better. “JCVD” is not a great movie, but it is fun and kept me enthralled throughout its running time. Where he goes from here remains to be seen, but hopefully some good will come out of his performance here.

* * * out of * * * *

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