Lowdown: A former big time star faces the mortality of his situation.
I first heard of Jean Claude Van Damme during my army service when I was forced to watch his rather hideous karate film Bloodsport in the company of men who seemed to have an orgasm with every kick. With time, Van Damme either grew on me or rather his films improved, and by the mid nineties he had a couple of nice films under his belt. Yet since then he seems to have disappeared into an abyss, popping back for the first noticeable time in JCVD.
The unique thing about the JCVD comeback is that it’s not just another kick and punch movie. Rather, it’s a film about Van Damme the real person or Van Damme as a real person (an important distinction the film keeps blurry on purpose). Van Damme plays himself, an aging movie star way past his peak but still a national hero at his homeland of Belgium who spends his time between reading job offers for very B grade films and dealing with the legal fight for his daughter in the USA.
As the film starts we see Van Damme coming back to Belgium from a custody court case that didn't go his way. He has his taxi stop by a post office, and the next thing you know it seems as if he's holding the people at that post office hostages. The situation receives plenty of attention from everyone given the hero status Dan Damme has with his compatriots. Then we go through a series of flashbacks during which we quickly learn that Van Damme is in fact a hostage and that it's only his status that made us think he's the hostage taker. Thing is, the outside world still thinks he's a criminal.
The rest of the film revolves around exposing Van Damme as a regular human being with regular human being issues and desires through the hostage situation that places him, the mega star, in a pretty helpless position. That big time ass kicker is all submissive in front of several low caliber criminals and their measly guns.
JCVD is certainly no run of the mill Van Damme film; there's no action to speak of and Van Damme is asked to act instead of kick. We are left with no doubt as for the film's purpose: it's a cynical look at the the world of celebrities and/or a deep look at a regular person in times of trouble. It could also be Van Damme's ticket back to celebrity status.
Given the uniqueness of having a genuine star willing to expose himself this way, JCVD is a fine and unique effort. Problems wise, my main issue with JCVD is the style with which it was shot: a very shaky camera held too close to the action, resulting in headaches and severe difficulties comprehending what's taking place. I don't get this style no matter how fashionable it currently is.
Key scene: While being held hostage, Van Damme is suddenly raised up and we can see he's in a movie set. He looks at the camera and gives us a long, too long in my view, speech from the bottom of his heart. It's person to person, not movie star to person.
Best scene: Van Damme's captor tells him how good Hard Target was and how much of an idiot John Woo was for abandoning him afterwards, noting Woo paid the just price with Windtalkers. The dialog continues and the two exchange jokes about Steven Seagal and his ponytail. While most of the dialog comes from the captor's mouth, it is clear that what we're hearing is the real Van Damme spilling his guts over the fate of his career. And I agree: as an owner of the Hard Target DVD, my opinion is this is Van Damme's best film ever and Woo's best American made film; I also agree that Windtalkers is an incredibly bad film.
Technical assessment: Interestingly enough, our local video store only had JCVD on DVD, which is why I missed out on it thus far (most of my browsing attention is reserved to Blu-rays). As DVDs go it’s not a bad one, although it has absolutely no supplementals (a two disc DVD set is said to be available, too). The picture quality is hard to assess as JCVD seems to have been filmed on extra high contrast stock that makes it look almost black and white, but the sound is decent.
Overall: Not a film that will knock you off your seat, but definitely uniquely interesting. 3 out of 5 stars, and here’s hoping to see more quality stuff from Van Damn It’s direction.