Was a time, a very brief time, when Jean-Claude Van Damme was cool. That moment came in 1993 when his Cajun kick-em-up Hard Target came out, and Van Damme, "the muscles from Brussels," introduced American audiences to the great Hong Kong action director John Woo.
That fleeting fling on the hip side of the street is referenced, amusingly and painfully, by fans and filmmakers in JCVD. This self-absorbed existential actioner has Van Damme play himself, a has-been who never was, a womanizing mediocrity who knows just enough to realize the trap he's been in, and that he will never ever escape it.
Think of it as Being Jean-Claude Van Damme, a Being John Malkovich with action beats, subtitles and a little less wit.
We open on the set of Van Damme's latest as he kicks and shoots his way out of a long fight scene that his arrogant, bored and boyish Hong Kong director can't be bothered to watch on the monitors as the actor runs through his repertoire.
"I yam 47 years old," JCVD protests in that accent of his. "Eeet ees very DEEF-icult for me to do every-THENG in one shot."
Everything in his life is "DEEF-icult." He's lost a court fight over his daughter, subjected to the mockery of his wife's attorney for his amoral movies.
"Every of my movies were having heart!" he protests, in a mercifully rare outburst in English.
His check to his lawyer (Alan Rossett) has bounced. When the former Jean-Claude Van Varenberg arrives in his hometown, Schaerbeek, Belgium, he may sign an autograph or dutifully pose for a picture. But he's showing the wear and tear of decades of hard living and action-film accidents.
He has no cash. He's stressed, frustrated over the low-rent movies he makes in Bulgaria, in which the entire budget goes to pay his salary. He's jet-lagged, furious at the court case he just lost and despairing over the daughter who doesn't respect him. He stops by a bank-post office to collect some money. And that turns into a robbery.
Mabrouk El Mechri's film -- he co-wrote and directed it -- plays like a lark but was filmed as a tragedy, a film of gray, overcast Belgian skies, gray streets and gray-tinted flashbacks that show us various versions of how JC got to this post office at this point in time. Star-struck cops watch his old movies from a command center just across the street. Yes, they've set up their hostage negotiating HQ in a video store. Star-struck fans fill the streets with "We Heart JC" placards even as events inside the post office go from bad to worse.
El Mechri pretentiously breaks his slight picture into chapters labeled "Time and the hour for the longest day" (Shakespeare). In the movie's money moment, the star turns to the camera and gives a soliloquy-confession about his life, his career, everything that went wrong. He is the self-aware action star in existential crisis, and for perhaps the first time in his career, Van Damme actually acts.
If you know Van Damme's work in the least, if you have any sympathy for the plight of the third-rate action screen hero whose days come to an end ( Steven Seagal is referenced a few times), JCVD will amuse and touch you. But JCVD goes only as far as its not-that-interesting star can take it. It's vivid proof that not many actors can produce, through their body of work, an image as eccentric and mysterious as John Malkovich. If you're trying to find and film "quirky," "muscles" are as boring as "Brussels."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times