Centering your film on the tragedy of being famous is a iffy proposition — it’s not a topic to which the majority of the world will relate, and from any normal and honest perspective, the benefits of celebrity far outweigh any downsides. But director Mabrouk El Mechri has as his star the Muscles From Brussels himself, Belgian action icon Jean-Claude Van Damme, a man whose legitimate claims to fame were staked decades back, and who’s now a figure of ridicule with a history of cocaine problems, four divorces, a tendency to spout ludicrous things in televised interviews and a recent track record confined to direct-to-DVD foreign productions. He’s also a pretty good sport, since all of these things factor it into “JCVD,” a film in which Van Damme plays a somewhat more pathetic variation on himself, headed back to Brussels after losing both custody of his child and a role in another throwaway action film he didn’t really want (to Steven Seagal, even, who promised to cut off his ponytail for the part), broke and broken and hoping to rest and to spend time with his parents. Instead, he ends up in Van Damme Day Afternoon, when a trio of incompetent robbers hold up the bank at which he’s awaiting a wire transfer to pay his L.A.-based attorneys and a tussle leads to a stand-off with hostages in which the police mistakenly think the star is the one in charge.
“JCVD” sounds like a one-joke meta movie industry clusterfuck, but El Mechri isn’t interested in too much self-congratulation for getting Van Damme to play “Van Damme.” He’s also not so interested in jokes — while there are intermittent moments of humor, “JCVD” is actually wildly unhappy. Van Damme’s daughter doesn’t want to live with him because her schoolmates make fun of her. Directors mock him for wanting to make anything more than bargain bin-fodder that knocks off his earlier work. He has huge legal fees and no way to pay them except by continuing to act in films he thinks are ruining his already crumbling career. He hasn’t slept for 48 hours and the fact that the police think he’s the culprit is compounded by the waves of fans who come out to observe the stand-off, motivated by its novelty value.
It’s these absurd lengths and this desire for legitimate drama that take “JCVD” beyond novelty itself — all Van Damme wants is to retreat from the world, and all the world wants is to take a picture with him, tell him he’s shorter than he looks on screen and ask him why John Woo never used him in another film after “Hard Target.” In the end, the only place he can turn is to the camera, where, in an extended and teary monologue he weeps that it’s not his fault, that he’s only chased the dreams he’s had when he was scrawny and 13 and spoke no English, and that he looks back at his life and feels he’s accomplished nothing. It’s an impressive feat of acting, even if it’s more awash in self-pity and a lack of self-awareness than intended — Jean-Claude Van Damme as a martyr to entertainment. Self-awareness would ruin “JCVD,” anyway — as is, it’s outlandish, half nonsensical and half wonderful.
[Photo: “JCVD,” Peace Arch, 2008]
+ “JCVD” (Fantastic Fest)