In the opening sequence in his namesake drama "JCVD," the C-list martial arts movie star is shown punching, kicking and blasting his way across a wartime wasteland. Even if he's looking pouchy and a bit road weary these days, it's precisely the kind of thing audiences expect to see from the star of such so-cheesy-it's-genius action fare as director John Woo's "Hard Target" (1993) and "Double Team" (1997), opposite basketball bad-boy Dennis Rodman.
It's a telling exchange. "JCVD," which arrived in theaters Friday after generating some industry heat at Cannes and the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year, is Van Damme's first art-house offering. A jokey yet sincere "celebreality" confessional, the movie is a standout in the actor's two-decade filmography, which is distinguished by some of the most jaw-droppingly, unself-consciously wooden acting committed to film
Nonetheless, his Adonis-like physique, his balletic finesse with roundhouse kicks and shoot'em-ups, and his goofy charisma allowed Van Damme to occupy a special tier of popcorn-movie stardom just beneath early action icons like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"JCVD," shot in French, arrives at a cultural moment when being a yesteryear action hero willing to filmically deconstruct past glories is a definite plus (if the early Oscar buzz surrounding Mickey Rourke's ballyhooed performance in "The Wrestler" is any indication). It also provides a mordant meditation on the downsides to stardom, using Van Damme's singular plight -- his real-life history of substance abuse and DUI arrests, precarious financial situation and waning fame -- as a kind of case study. In an effort to shatter his hard-charging image, the former European middleweight karate champion better known as the "Muscles From Brussels" takes on a role unlike any in his last 38 movies: himself. That is, a middle-aged Hollywood has-been looking for a new lease on life.
"I decided to talk about myself and open myself. Peeling off the skin of a peach," Van Damme said by phone from Bangkok, where he is editing a movie he directed and self-financed called "Full Love." He continued with the metaphor: "Cutting into the pulp and going to the seed -- to the pit -- of the peach. And I cut that pit into pieces. This is what I saw."
He added: "In 'JCVD' I am naked."
This gutsy, oddly entertaining movie can trace its DNA to a 2003 French TV documentary called "Dans le Peau de Jean-Claude Van Damme" (Under the Skin of Jean-Claude Van Damme) directed by Frederic Benudis, which features the action star speaking candidly about his career mistakes and on-screen image. With screenwriter Christophe Turpin, Benudis went on to co-write a meta-movie script called "The King of Belgium"; the action-comedy's plot has Van Damme embroiled in a bank robbery and hostage situation reminiscent of 1975's "Dog Day Afternoon" but deriving a certain antic energy from the idea that Van Damme would be powerless in the face of a real-life crisis.
The screenplay got optioned and made its way to indie director Mabrouk El Mechri, who was on the rise in France after the success of his debut feature, "Virgil." And when "King of Belgium" producer Marc Fiszman offered to introduce El Mechri to Van Damme, the director jumped at the chance -- more excited to meet one of his childhood heroes than to discuss bringing the movie to the screen.
El Mechri seized the opportunity, however, to deliver the karate chopper some tough love.
"I said to him, 'You're a great action star,' " the director recalled. "But I told him he was just doing the same film over and over. Everybody got bored. Add to that the problems with substance [abuse], the weird stuff he's known for saying in the media. He became this weird pop-culture icon. I was allowed to say that. I didn't care if he liked it or not."
Turns out, that dose of reality was exactly what Van Damme needed to hear after years of being stuck in career purgatory. "I fell in love with that guy," Van Damme said of El Mechri. "He told me, 'Don't be scared. I want to do something that shows another side of you.' "
El Mechri did a top-down rewrite of "The King of Belgium" ("I didn't like the script. It was written by people who didn't know Jean-Claude at the fan level, who weren't aware of what a big star he used to be"). And although the end result, "JCVD," is hardly worshipful to its subject, it uses his foibles as a five-times married, coke-sniffing, down-on-his-luck matinee idol to humanize Van Damme.
"Even though he didn't have a film in the theater for years, you walk with him on any street anywhere in the world and he's still a star," El Mechri said. "But when you're that huge, you don't necessarily have access to honesty."
About two-thirds of the way through "JCVD," Van Damme takes a step back from the action -- a hostage drama set in a bank in his native Belgium in which police are mistakenly led to believe Van Damme is behind the robbery plot rather than one of its victims -- to breach moviedom's fourth wall and speak directly to the viewer.
Looking exhausted and puffy, he takes stock of his life over the course of a 6 1/2 -minute monologue: the matrimonial failures, escalating tax debts and estranged children. In a further nod to his real-life circumstances, he speaks candidly about how he turned to drugs when having it all no longer seemed like enough. As well, Van Damme grapples with the way the movie biz built him up and cast him asunder.
"It's not my fault if I was cut out to be a star," he explains to the viewer. "I asked for it, really believed in it. When you're 13, you believe in your dream. Well, it came true for me. But I still ask myself what have I done on this Earth?" Visibly weeping, he answers his own question: "Nothing! I've done nothing!"
Of the scene, which has become the movie's primary talking point, El Mechri said: "It was a complete improvisation based on some notes he had on a pad. The weirdest thing is, I know him really well. And I can't say if he's acting or not in that scene."
Despite what he says during his tearful monologue, Van Damme feels "JCVD" has raised the curtain on a third act in his career.
For evidence of this, look no further than his passion project, "Full Love," in which he stars in addition to having written, directed and produced with the intention (perhaps a not entirely realistic one) of reingratiating himself in Hollywood's studio system. Van Damme is still cagey about it's plot and genre but detailed a few fragmental basics: It's largely set in Southeast Asia, flashes between the present and 1960, follows the story of a "psychologically deranged" guy in love.
"It's low-budget because I financed it myself," Van Damme said of "Full Love." "I made the movie for the simple reason: to show some responsibility. I'm not going to get paid. I'm going to give them the movie. I just want them to open it in a thousand theaters on the East Coast. That was the technique with 'Lionheart' and 'Bloodsport.' If it works, I can go back to the studios.
"It's going to be very controversial. It's kind of a dangerous movie for my career. But after 'JCVD,' why not? Why not push further?"
Lee is a Times staff writer.