The unlikely rise of a faded C-star
1 Febrary, 2009
HOLLYWOOD - Call it Jean-Claude Van Damme's Being John Malkovich moment:
In the opening sequence in his namesake drama, JCVD, the C-list martial-arts movie star is punching, kicking and blasting his way across a wartime wasteland.
Even if he's looking pouchy and road-weary these days, it's the kind of thing audiences expect to see from the star of such so-cheesy-it's-genius action fare as director John Woo's Hard Target (1993) and Double Team (1997), opposite basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman.
But the scene falls apart when a prop wall tumbles down behind the Belgian-born action hero.
"It's very difficult for me to do everything in one shot! I'm 47 years old," Van Damme complains to an Asian action auteur, who scoffs, "He still thinks we're making Citizen Kane?"
JCVD, which generated industry heat at Cannes and the Toronto Film Festival in 2008, is Van Damme's first art-house offering. A jokey yet sincere confessional, the movie stands out from the actor's two-decade filmography, which is distinguished by some of the most jaw-dropping, unself-conscious wooden acting committed to film.
Despite the schlock, Van Damme's physique, balletic finesse and goofy charisma have allowed him to occupy a special tier of stardom just beneath early action icons Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
JCVD, shot in French, arrives at a cultural moment when being a yesteryear action hero willing to deconstruct past glories is a plus (if the Oscar buzz surrounding Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler is any indication).
It also provides a meditation on the downside to stardom, using Van Damme's plight - his real-life history of substance abuse and DUI arrests, precarious financial situation and waning fame - as a case study.
The former European middleweight karate champion, better known as the Muscles From Brussels, takes on a role unlike any in his past 38 movies: himself. That is, a middle-age Hollywood has-been looking for a new lease on life.
"I decided to talk about myself and open myself. Peeling off the skin of a peach. In JCVD, I am 'naked,' " Van Damme said from Bangkok, Thailand, where he's editing Full Love, a movie he directed and financed.
This gutsy, oddly entertaining movie can be traced to a 2003 French TV documentary, Dans la peau de Jean-Claude Van Damme (Under the Skin of Jean-Claude Van Damme), directed by Frederic Benudis, which features the action star speaking candidly about his career mistakes and on-screen image.
Benudis, with screenwriter Christophe Turpin, also co-wrote a meta-movie script called The King of Belgium. The action-comedy's plot has Van Damme embroiled in a bank robbery and hostage situation reminiscent of 1975's Dog Day Afternoon but deriving a certain antic energy from the idea that Van Damme would be powerless in the face of a real-life crisis.
The screenplay was optioned and made its way to indie director Mabrouk El Mechri. When King of Belgium producer Marc Fiszman offered to introduce El Mechri to Van Damme, the director jumped at the chance - more excited to meet one of his childhood heroes than to discuss bringing the movie to the screen.
El Mechri seized the opportunity, however, to deliver the karate chopper some tough love.
"I said to him, 'You're a great action star,' " the director recalled. "But I told him he was just doing the same film over and over. Everybody got bored. Add to that the problems with substance (abuse), the weird stuff he's known for saying in the media. He became this weird pop-culture icon. I was allowed to say that. I didn't care if he liked it or not."
Turns out, that dose of reality was exactly what Van Damme needed after years in career purgatory.
"I fell in love with that guy," Van Damme said of El Mechri. "He told me, 'Don't be scared. I want to do something that shows another side of you.' "
El Mechri did a top-down rewrite of The King of Belgium. Although the end result, JCVD, is hardly worshipful to its subject, it uses Van Damme's foibles as a five-times-married, coke-snorting, down-on-his-luck matinee idol to humanize him.
"Even though he didn't have a film in the theater for years, you walk with him on any street anywhere in the world and he's still a star," El Mechri said. "But when you're that huge, you don't necessarily have access to honesty."
Two-thirds through JCVD, Van Damme steps back from the action to breach moviedom's "fourth wall" and speak directly to the viewer.
Looking exhausted and puffy, he takes stock of his life during a 6 1/2- minute monologue: the matrimonial failures, tax debts and estranged children. He speaks candidly about how he turned to drugs when seemingly having it all no longer was enough. He also grapples with the way the movie biz built him up and cast him asunder.
"It's not my fault if I was cut out to be a star," he says. "I asked for it, really believed in it. When you're 13, you believe in your dream. Well, it came true for me. But I still ask myself, what have I done on this Earth?"
Weeping, he answers his own question: "Nothing! I've done nothing!"
Of the scene, which has become the movie's primary talking point, El Mechri said, "It was a complete improvisation based on some notes he had on a pad.
"The weirdest thing is, I know him really well. And I can't say if he's acting or not in that scene."
Despite his tearful monologue, Van Damme feels JCVD has raised the curtain on a third act in his career.
Look no further than Full Love, in which he stars in addition to having written, directed and produced with the intention of reingratiating himself in Hollywood's studio system. Van Damme is still cagey about its plot and genre but revealed a few fragmental basics: It's set in Southeast Asia, flashes between the present and 1960, follows the story of a "psychologically deranged" guy in love.
"It's low-budget because I financed it myself," Van Damme said. "I made the movie for the simple reason: to show some responsibility. I'm not going to get paid. I'm going to give them the movie. I just want them to open it in a thousand theaters on the East Coast. . . . If it works, I can go back to the studios.
"It's going to be very controversial. It's kind of a dangerous movie for my career. But after JCVD, why not? Why not push further?"
Jean-Claude Van Damme