JCVD (2008)

JCVD first published by musicOMH, 30 Jan 2009

This truly is a postmodern age. Everyone got their 15 minutes of fame in the body of John Malkovich (played gamely by himself) in Being John Malkovich (1999). A woman (played by Julia Roberts) managed to blag her way into a luxury hotel owing to her resemblance to Julia Roberts in Ocean’s 12 (2004). Bruce Campbell played Bruce Campbell while still fighting cheesy monsters in My Name is Bruce (2007). And now Jean-Claude van Damme, the promising Belgian action hero of the late Eighties and early Nineties turned aging direct-to-video minor hitter, gets to be who he (sort of) really is in the bizarre meta-biopic JCVD.

  Having just lost custody of his daughter at a trial in which his own DVD back catalogue was adduced in evidence against him, van Damme is at a low point. He is 47 years old, has little money in his accounts, and can only get work in third-rate movies shot on the cheap in Eastern Europe – assuming, that is, that Steven Seagal does not beat him to the parts. So the Muscles from Brussels flees back home, only to find himself unable to escape his on-screen persona even there, as he walks into a post office hostage crisis that is like something lifted straight from one of his own films. Real life, however, is never quite the same as the movies…

JCVD opens with an elaborate single take that shows van Damme doing what has made him famous – using guns, knives, grenades and his bare hands to take on an army of enemies. After several minutes of mayhem, a part of the set is accidentally knocked over, the crew is revealed, and, as van Damme complains “it’s very difficult for me to do everything in one shot” and the director (Rock Chen) objects (in Chinese), “He still thinks we’re making Citizen Kane“, van Damme’s on-screen invincibility is summarily demolished, leaving us with a picture of a very different man. 

In fact van Damme will be required to do two further lengthy one-shot  takes in JCVD, although these could not contrast more with the opening action sequence. In the first, the tension is shown on van Damme’s face as he politely endures a verbal tirade from a Belgian taxi driver who is disappointed by the reality of her ‘idol’; while in the second, van Damme talks directly to camera about his life, love and loss, in a seven-minute bravura performance of incredible intensity and introspection. Here co-writer/director Mabrouk el Mechri pushes the star outside his ‘safety zone’ precisely by requiring him to act (or at least to act himself) – and the results are mesmerising and unsettling.      

If JCVD cleverly dramatises the way in which van Damme is a hostage to, or even a prisoner of, the expectations that his own (fallen) star status raise in everyone who encounters him, then it is to el Mechri’s great credit that the film repeatedly frustrates these very expectations in the viewer, thus ensuring that JCVD is like nothing else in the van Damme oeuvre. Everyone in this film struggles to separate the Belgian bruiser from his fictive persona, and during the post office siege both police and criminals expressly model their conduct on what they have learnt from movies – but things never quite go down by the Hollywood book, and our desire to see the hero fight his way out of a tight spot is ultimately exposed as the mere wish-fulfilment fantasy that it is. Even the siege scenario that constitutes the film’s most conventional action element is fractured by a time-shifting narrative borrowed straight from the arthouse.     

Perhaps in the end JCVD is only a curio – but it is witty, insightful and unusual enough to strike the viewer more memorably than any ass-kicking antics. It might even get van Damme more work…

strap: Mabrouk el Mechri’s meta-biopic contrasts Jean-Claude van Damme’s on-screen action star persona with a different if no less fictive reality

Anton Bitel