In the Entertaining 'JCVD,' Van Damme Is More Thespian Than Action Hero

By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 21, 2008

If, perchance, you missed out on the epoch of Jean-Claude Van Damme -- the "Muscles From Brussels"; the star of "Double Impact," "Hard Target" and "Sudden Death"; the international martial-arts idol who didn't campaign for Mike Huckabee -- you might not get the joke of "JCVD." On the other hand, one hardly needed intimate knowledge of John Malkovich to find it amusing that the actor might have a portal in his brain that emptied onto the New Jersey Turnpike. Or to recognize how funny and charming Elisabeth Shue was, playing Elisabeth Shue in "Hamlet 2."

Playing Jean-Claude Van Damme is what Van Damme does in "JCVD," Mabrouk El Mechri's inventive, insightful and utterly surprising movie. Why surprising? Because, as with Malkovich in "Being John Malkovich," you can't figure out why Van Damme is doing it (you figure it out later). And because it takes you places you're not prepared to go -- namely, into the soul of a performer who is best known for flying back-kicks and pounding international villainy into jellied consomme. And who, by the way, can act.

Yes, it's true. From the time we first see him -- slogging, plodding and punching his way through a one-take action sequence that covers the entire opening-credit crawl of what is clearly another cheesy action thriller -- he's a convincingly weary guy. "I'm 47 years old," he complains to the film-within-a-film's young director, who couldn't care less.

Van Damme may be world-renowned, the idol of millions, but his career has been a roller-coaster tour of fame, pharmaceuticals and incipient ex-fatherhood. He needs money. He's got a custody case in court, he's running out of cash, and when he dashes into a post office/bank in the bucolic Belgian village of Schaerbeek (known, apparently, as "the city of donkeys"), there's a robbery in progress. The criminals make the guys in "Dog Day Afternoon" look like the Bolshoi Ballet. But on the outside, the police and the citizenry think Van Damme has gone rogue. He's taken hostages!

Although humor, violence and nervous tension are generated by "JCVD," El Mechri's prank -- it's more than a prank, but it feels prankish -- is putting an action star in a movie that debunks the mythos of action stars. With a "real" gun to his head, Van Damme -- who has been greeted by every stranger on the streets of Schaerbeek -- is like anybody would be: another worried, fretful hostage. Worse, in fact. In what is a rather phenomenally naked piece of acting, Van Damme at one point delivers a soliloquy on his past life and regrets, directly into the camera, and one can shrug it off if one has no heart. But it's not just emotional, it's crafty -- through it, Van Damme seizes control of the movie, and control of his image. He owns the moment. He owns his life. He owns us. He might think he owns El Mechri, too, but the director stays just out of reach.

Van Damme might have created a JCVD character who believed in his own persona. He doesn't. He is pretty fed up, in fact, with being Van Damme. But everyone else around him -- even his parents, who are played by his parents -- is ready to believe that Jean-Claude has robbed the bank. El Mechri shows us why, via overlapping flash-forwards and flashbacks that tell the story from different perspectives. You see why Van Damme is a plausible enough suspect for the cops, who set up their base of operations/negotiations in a nearby video store (which is pretty hilarious; JCVD probably occupies most of the shelf space). But they are fans, too. So are the robbers. While one taunts our hero, another worships him. And the love/hate/envy relationship of the public to its screen stars is made flesh.

"JCVD" is not a perfect film -- it sags, it gets cute and the sepia tone in which everything is shot eventually reminds us why Technicolor was invented. But it certainly has heart. Toward the end, Van Damme imagines a fantastic coda to this adventure he's been through, the same type millions of kids have probably dreamed of while watching Jean-Claude Van Damme movies -- vanquishing evil without breaking a sweat, walking off with swagger. It's hard to resist: Here's a battered superstar who has occupied so many fantasies, but it turns out that his fantasies are just like ours.

JCVD (92 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row) is rated R for vulgarity and violence.

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