Movie review: The indomitable Van Damme

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 11, 2008 - 5:21 PM

Clever, delightful and even touching, "JCVD" finds unforeseen depth in its washed-up action hero.

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Jean-Claude Van Damme in "JCVD," in which where he plays a washed-up, aging movie star named Jean-Claude Van Damme.

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It sounds like a recipe for disaster. Or maybe a turducken-style triple-decker of cinematic folly: a mistake, stuffed into a fiasco, surrounded by a catastrophe.

Think about it.

Someone cast kung-fu king Jean-Claude Van Damme in a postmodernist indie movie about a washed-up action star in a real-life hostage crisis?

They asked Mr. "Bloodsport," limber of limb but frozen of face, to spill his guts with a heartbreaking soliloquy about his faded dreams and meaningless career?

Somebody set out to make a Van Damme movie that's scathingly smart, wickedly funny and exuberantly entertaining?

They did and it is. "JCVD" is movie magic. Low-budget wizardry to be sure, but all the more impressive for that. It announces its ambition from its bravura beginning, a minutes-long, unbroken take of Van Damme walloping scores of assailants as the camera tracks alongside him. The sequence ends with a stupendous physical gag that Buster Keaton would have adored, revealing that we've been on a movie set the whole time.

The situation deepens when the weary, wheezing Van Damme begs his director for another take. "I'm 47 years old," he says, and it's getting hard for him to make the moves look convincing. The whippersnapper behind the camera dismisses him like a child.

That's just the beginning of his troubles. He's chin-deep in tax problems, he's fighting his ex-wife in court for custody of his daughter, and he just lost a role to Steven Seagal. His agent keeps putting him in schlock where his salary is most of the budget. "I'll work for scale, just get me a studio movie," he begs to no avail. Director Mabrouk El Mechri's camera probes the actor's careworn face, showing us that he's not just physically tapped out. He's spiritually exhausted.

Its premise firmly in place, "JCVD" throws its star into a comic day from hell. Returning to his Belgian hometown to recuperate, Van Damme is dissed by a rude cabbie, harassed by pushy fans and suddenly embroiled in a bank robbery. He's held at gunpoint alongside the thieves' other prisoners, who wonder why the martial arts legend doesn't just disarm them like in the movies. He's forced to relay the crooks' demands to the authorities, who conclude that the cash-strapped former star is the real criminal. Word of the standoff spreads, and crowds gather to chant Van Damme's name and wave signs as if they were rooting for a sports hero. His father and mother are brought to the scene to reason with him, and they're very disappointed by their son's crime binge.

The clever script heaps humiliation on its star. Television stations covering the siege run interview clips from long-ago news conferences where Van Damme spouts pompous gibberish. He's smacked around by weedy criminals and mistreated by his L.A. lawyer. Suddenly he's a kind of O.J. Simpson figure, a has-been whose fame is approaching a scandalous flame-out. In the throes of an anxiety attack, Van Damme faces the camera and delivers a self-lacerating soliloquy that indicts his lowbrow career choices and drug-fueled narcissism. In the midst of a mocking movieland parody, this four-minute, single-take monologue is a passage of touching honesty and considerable artistic courage.

Lest that sound too high-flown, "JCVD" is a hoot. It's layered with in-jokes for movie fans, sight gags, even droll sound effects. The bank robbery triggers an obnoxious car alarm, and when the source of the grating noise finally becomes clear, it's a riotous toss-off. The playful El Mechri, who has technique to spare, ties chronology in knots, inserts fantasy sequences and spoofs the physical medium of film itself, yet never loses track of the emotion. This is not only a Van Damme movie that will make you laugh -- on purpose -- it could very well make you cry.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

  • JCVD

    ★★★ out of four stars

    Rating: R for language and some violence. In French (subtitled) and English.

    Where: Lagoon.

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