Being Jean Claude has never been so much fun.
If ever there was a case for opening yourself to accusations of self-absorption, a charge which Jean Claude van Damme is all too familiar with, starring in a film playing, more or less, yourself titled, more or less, eponymously, this would be it. Somehow, JCVD manages to pull it off, more or less.
Not quite playing himself, although he might as well be in the way the Eminem didn't quite play himself, but might as well have done in 8 Mile, Van Damme returns to the Belgian town he grew up in to escape some of the hassles of a child custody court case that's not going his way and a career that's slid about as far down as is can, hoping to get some space and time to regroup. That's just about the last thing that happens to him.
Heading into the post office to wire some money to his lawyers, he finds himself in the middle of an armed hold-up. As it's not part of the script he doesn't do that jumpy-spinny kick and disable the evildoers in one fell testosterone fuelled swoop, but sensibly joins the rest of the hostages the gang has taken. It's not long before word of the robbery gets out, with the local police chief and S.W.A.T. team called in, and thanks to a misunderstanding given some credence by Van Damme's recent (in-film reality, at least) financial troubles, they believe the it's JCVD that's behind the scheme.
What follows is something of an odd cross between Dog Day Afternoon, a theatrical comedic farce and the notes from Van Damme's psychiatrist. There's really no way in hell that this ought to work, which makes it all the more surprising when it does. Admittedly, the film never manages to top the stunning awesomeicity of the studio's ident, but few films could. What it does deliver, though is not just a series of scenes and moments that are interesting, or funny, or revealing, or any combination of the above as isolated moments, but also a narrative that somehow manages to weave them all into a standard heist setup in a way that makes enough sense that it also works as that standard heist film even with all of this strange meta-characterisation around it. Which means that it's several orders of magnitude cleverer than anything this JC has done before.
That, perhaps, isn't saying much, especially as Van Damme has been somewhat off-radar since the 1993 John Woo directed outing Hard Target (which at the risk of iconoclasm, I'd say holds up better than Face/Off to make it Woo's best Western outing). He has, however, not stopped making films, including a few with that other HK luminary Ringo Lam, although the quality of the output is perhaps questionable. JCVD tackles this head on at points, including a remarkable opening barrage as Van Damme Van Dammes his way through a five minute continuously shot action sequence at the behest of a bored director. As Jean Claude points out, just like Danny Glover, he's too old for this shit.
It's difficult to talk about JCVD: the film without it becoming a talk about JCVD: the man, because the two are so intertwined. I have no interest in exhuming the man's previous egotistical statements, or his choices to take drugs and give bizarre soundbites in interviews. My views, however, do not count anything like as much as JCVD's, and he seems happy enough to have his dirty laundry paraded around. This isn't so much an apology for it as an explanation, and while the inherent cynic in me wants to declare it as plainly being a self-serving attempt at character rehabilitation, it feels genuine and heartfelt, a real reflection of an older man on his younger self.
This is starting to sound somewhat self-referential, and there's an unavoidable element of that. It's never particularly overwhelming, and it remains enjoyable purely on the basis of the somewhat jokey bank robbery film. It's aided by something that even Van Damme apologists would have to describe as a rarity: a great acting performance from Van Damme. It's always easy to chortle at attempts at drama from action stars, but very few of them are acting in their native language and so obviously are at something of a disadvantage. Given the occasion, as he has for stretches here, to act in his first language, JC turns out to be a more than decent performer. Not that he's suddenly the second coming of Olivier or anything, but for those used to rather more wooden performances from him this will come as a pleasant shock.
With a mischievous sense of humour about the subject's career and the film-making process, how on earth this managed to gel with the heist narrative and character rehabilitation is a complete mystery but somehow it makes perfect sense. Given that on first glance this film ought to fly apart at the slightest provocation and be a complete disaster, that's remarkable enough in itself. There's only one mis-step in the entire film, an ill-judged monologue where the action pauses and JC is literally hoist up out of the scene amongst the lighting rigs that's just stretching the concept one notch too far and snapping it. This one short scene aside, JCVD has very little else wrong with it.
I can't quite believe I'm saying this, but this is one of the most imaginative and well-executed concepts for a film I've seen in years. It's challenging, sure, and perhaps for those not around for the Bloodsport / Kickboxer glory days of Van Damme perhaps somewhat impenetrable. However, I found it by turns funny, suspenseful, insightful and most importantly, utterly enjoyable. I for one welcome our new jumpy-spinny-kicking overlord. Go JCVD!
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
François Damiens (Bruges)
Zinedine Soualem (L'homme au bonnet)
Karim Belkhadra (Le vigile)
Jean-François Wolff (Le trentenaire)
Anne Paulicevich (La guichetière)