Saturday, November 22, 2008

JCVD (2008)

JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008)

Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD opens with a high-powered action sequence. We see Jean Claude Van Damme dodging endless barrages of bullets, knocking out hordes of nameless villains, and getting past impossible explosions before ending up being ignored by his disinterested director (imported from Hong Kong, in obvious reference to John Woo, who Van Damme introduced to the American market but never paid back the favor by giving Van Damme a role in any of his Hollywood projects after Hard Target (1993)). As the opening sequence, where we witness in one spectacular shot the action star quickly metamorphosing from indestructible hero to just another man in the film set, depicts, El Mechri's goal is to remove Van Damme out of the myths of superhuman mettle (Van Damme has often been referred to "The Muscle from Brussels") his roles in films like Blood Sport (Newt Arnold, 1988), Universal Soldier (Roland Emmerich, 1992) and Double Team (Tsui Hark, 1997) have supplied him, and turn him into something more convincingly human: a victim of circumstance, aggravated by his fame and notoriety.

The portrait of Van Damme we see in JCVD is vastly different from the characters, all of whom are exquisite representations of brash masculinity (indestructible cage fighters, no-nonsense hitmen, and virile ladies' men), he played in several of his B-movies and actioners. Here, he is aging (his face is riddled with lines and wrinkles), with a physique that could not have belonged to the same person who fought to the death in Blood Sport. Here, he struggles at diplomacy, turning his Brussels cab driver from adoring fan to nagging annoyance in a matter of minutes. Here, in the midst of a crisis that should logically be easy for the man named the Muscle from Brussels, he can only imagine, but cannot actually do, the spectacular stunt moves that would get him out of trouble.

The Van Damme we see in JCVD here is closer to the Van Damme that magazines and tabloids cover and more often than not, make fun of. Here, Van Damme is struggling with the impending loss of his daughter because of his uphill battle for her custody, while playing mind games with his agent whose incompetence lost Van Damme a direct-to-video B-movie project to Steven Segal (who agreed to cut his mullet for the starring role). JCVD partly succeeds as entertainment because of its tabloid sensibilities, dwelling on the mostly negative predisposition of a pathetic has-been. However, JCVD does more than expose the incapacities and failures of a fading superstar for sheer entertainment's sake. El Mechri succeeds in turning Van Damme from infamous icon to encumbered human being, worthy of our sympathies. Van Damme succeeds in exposing himself, not as a devious fraud and agent of moronic cinema, but as a victim of circumstance and his own ambitions.

JCVD may not turn prepubescent boys into Van Damme idolizers. It does, however, add a deeper dimension to a nearly forgotten pop icon, allowing him the opportunity to address the several issues that have been thrown to him (his womanizing, drug addiction, his worsening notoriety and declining fame) and in turn, transforming himself into a figure that is not dissimilar to the rest of us. His previous films may have given him the legacy of brute ability. JCVD cracks that legacy, and allows us an intimate peek to Van Damme's persona.

In the middle of the agonizing hostage drama which El Mechri composed as the narrative device to put his fictional version of Van Damme in, everything suddenly stops except for Van Damme. His chair ascends, and we see the film set's klieglights and other movie-making mechanisms behind him. The internal movie logic of JCVD takes a pause to allow its hero respite from the conventional untruths of cinema and media he has been accustomed to. Van Damme delivers his confessional, unscripted and intimate (the still camera centering on his face, no cues, no direction except for his own). He talks about his problems, his past as a scrawny teenager who dreams of making it big in Hollywood, his frustrations and disappointments. Finally, Van Damme, the Muscle of Brussels, the sonic-booming soldier in Street Fighter (Steven E. de Souza, 1994), and time-traveling sci-fi hero of Timecop (Peter Hyams, 1994), cries. This undoubtedly is Van Damme's greatest onscreen performance ever, and the fact that he isn't acting makes the sequence more astounding.

1 comment:

Prometheus Brown said...

Definitely his best. Even knowing that it would be self-referential, I was genuinely surprised by JCVD's performance.