27 May, 2008
If the goal with the self reflective JCVD was to recreate the public image of aging action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, then you may consider that mission a success. If the goal was to announce to the world that sophomore feature director Mabrouk El Mechri is a truly world class talent, then you may also consider that mission a success. If the goal was to skewer celebrity-obsessed culture while laying out the toll it takes on those on the receiving end of the idol worship, then - yep - thatís another one in the success column.
That JCVD is able to show you a new face to its star and subject at all makes it a major accomplishment. That it does so with such an incredible sense of style, insight, and pure entertainment value makes it a revelation. Ladies and gentlemen, after spending decades turning out lowest-common-denominator action pictures Jean-Claude Van Damme has just made a truly great film. No matter what criteria you may use to judge it - scripting, cinematography, humour, action, even dramatic performance - JCVD is one remarkable piece of work. Yes, I flat out love this film.
The premise, at this point, should be familiar to regular readers of this site. Jean-Claude Van Damme, aging star of direct to video low budget action films, is returning home to Belgium after a lengthy court battle that cost him the custody of his daughter. The final straw in court? Not the opposing lawyer reciting a litany of methods the star has used to kill opponents on screen to demonstrate the star makes a poor role model, no ... it is the daughter herself taking the stand and telling the judge that all of her friends laugh at her whenever her father appears on television. Beaten down and depressed, his goal is simply to return home, to get out of the spotlight for a bit and recharge. But life isnít that simple ... Van Damme has racked up a sizable legal bill and his lawyer is demanding immediate payment. But the well has run dry, the accounts are drained, and to pay the lawyer off Van Damme must first secure an advance payment from his next film and wire that money back to his lawyer. But things are never as simple as they could be and in this case a quick trip to the bank proves disastrous. The bank in question is in the middle of being held up and the police assume - wrongly - that Van Damme is the culprit when they arrive on scene. Before long itís a full on media mob scene ...
From the very opening frame it is clear that JCVD is something special. First of all, director Mabrouk El Mechri has some serious, serious skill behind the camera. The cinematography is excellent, the script sharp, the editing rhythmic and Mechri is clearly in love with long, complicated single take shots with the camera seemingly floating through chaos. An example? The film begins with a film-within-the-film, on set of Van Dammeís latest (fictional) DTV effort with a single-shot action sequence that runs better than four minutes in a single take. This one shot summarizes a huge amount of what makes the film special: it first takes Van Dammeís existing persona and ramps up that existing vision of the star considerably - this is the best action sequence heís been involved with for years and itís hard not to see it as some sort of pointed response to the single take shots in Hard Boiled and Tom Yum Goong, and I seriously hope Gaumont kept all of the film-within-a-film stuff to actually make this film somewhere down the line - before gleefully poking a hole in it, the scene ending with a fake wall falling over when a door is slammed too hard and a winded Van Damme complaining to the director (who couldnít possibly care less) that heís forty-seven and itís too damn hard to do these long takes at his age.
Things progress in a remarkably brave fashion from there, the film borrowing liberally from difficult aspects of the starís own life. His drug abuse? Itís in there. The money problems? Really happened. The custody battle? Also real. That Van Damme would hand his life over to any director at all to use as fodder in a comedy, never mind to such a young and largely unproven director, is absolutely stunning. That Mechri handles the material so deftly is absolutely remarkable. The risk in doing these sorts of Kauffman-esque sorts of films is that unless you are an absolute raging genius who is also gifted with a good sense of human nature, a brilliant sense of humour and a star with some serious performance chops you are doomed to create little more than a self-absorbed piece of junk. Mechri, it is safe to say, is an absolute raging genius with a good sense of human nature and a brilliant sense of humour. Plus one hell of a good star.
And here comes the part where I say something I never thought I would say. I like Van Damme movies and Iíve seen a lot of them. Up to a certain point - I believe it was Hard Target - I saw every one of them in the theatre in its first week of release. But I would never have dreamed of saying that Van Damme was a good actor. Until now. Jean-Claude Van Damme, when given the right material and a director who knows how to work with him, is one hell of a good actor. His face has taken on a good amount of character as he has aged, he makes himself remarkably vulnerable in this which works wonders, he proves to have natural timing and a gift for comedy and he should have started working in his native language years ago. Heís got the goods, heís just never really been given much of a chance to show it before.
Funny without relying on punchlines, clever, insightful, neatly balancing action with drama, impeccably crafted and blessed with a charismatic star willing to simply lay it all out there and let things fall where they may, JCVD is a revelation. If thereís any justice in the world at all this film will both launch its director to major acclaim while also triggering a full-on rebirth for its star, one that should take him worlds away from the DTV action ghetto that heís been consigned to for years. Nearly half way through 2008, this is the best film Iíve seen all year.
Jean-Claude Van Damme