Friday, January 23, 2009

Review - JCVD

It's always startling whenever a movie star famed for one type of film shows us another string to his bow, and produces the kind of performance we never would have expected from him. When the star is someone whose most recent films have been straight-to-video affairs with names like Until Death, The Hard Corps or Wake of Death (I'm sure at least one of those co-starred Troy McClure), the revelation of a sensitive, introspective side and some genuine acting ability is particularly noteworthy. The star of Mabrouk El Mechri's terrifically odd meta-drama JCVD is Jean-Claude Van Damme, and as you may have guessed from the title, he's playing himself – or at least, a self-lacerating version of himself – which has turned out to be the role of a lifetime. Not everything in JCVD works, but the film is an utterly fascinating piece of work, the kind of picture you can't drag your eyes away from because you have no idea where it's going to go next; and at the centre of it all is one of the bravest, most extraordinary performances you'll see this year. Just ask yourself this: When was the last time a Jean-Claude Van Damme film reduced you to tears? (And no, I don't mean tears of laughter, smartass).

JCVD certainly begins on familiar turf, before winding down some unexpected byways. The opening sequence finds Van Damme single-handedly defeating wave after wave of gun-toting soldiers as he makes his way through some kind of blandly generic warehouse. The camera follows him all the way, and as the shot continues we can see clues that this is mere moviemaking – the punches don't quite connect, the explosions are a little off the mark – until an extra finally exposes the artifice by knocking down a piece of the set, and ruining the whole take. "I'm 47 years old" Van Damme complains to the Chinese director, "I can't do it all in one shot", but his appeals fall on deaf ears. The Jean-Claude Van Damme we are presented with in JCVD is a pathetic figure – a has-been as an action star, and a failure as a father. While struggling to keep his career on some kind of even keel, he is also engaged in an ugly custody battle over his daughter, with his wife using Van Damme's own DVDs as evidence of his unsuitability as a parent. The guy needs a break to clear his head and refresh his spirits, so he heads home, which is where the trouble really starts.

In the small Belgian town where he was born, Van Damme finds himself in a post office just as a robbery is taking place, and as the police and curious onlookers gather outside, word quickly spreads that the star is the one orchestrating this hostage situation. JCVD is part heist movie, part biopic, and part postmodern, Kaufman-esque head-trip, and even if El Mechri always doesn't blend those unlikely ingredients as potently as he might have done, he still creates an intriguing and singular piece of filmmaking. The young writer/director is hardly lacking in confidence (he even sings one of the songs on the soundtrack), and he has a lot of fun playing with the structure of JCVD; cutting back-and-forth between the post office and various scenes from Jean-Claude's life, replaying key sequences from multiple angles, and frequently finding unusual angles on the action. His screenplay is full of details from Van Damme's real history, referencing his drug and marital problems, and dividing the film's chapters with some of the star's legendary Zen-like aphorisms ("Stone falls on egg. Egg breaks"); and he makes a number of comical stabs at the lowly state of the actor's career. Jean-Claude's conversations with his feckless agent are particularly amusing; he learns in one scene that he has lost a role to Steven Seagal, because "Steven has promised to cut off his ponytail".

These scenes are so much fun it's a shame JCVD tends to get bogged down in the hostage plotline – it lacks tension and feels overstretched – and El Mechri's taste for the unexpected has unfortunately extended to the lighting, which is harsh and garish throughout; but JCVD is almost always engrossing, and much of that is down to its leading man. This is a great performance from Van Damme, he's deadpan, appealing and unfailingly honest, and much like Mickey Rourke's recent turn in The Wrestler, he seems to feed all of his experiences, hopes and fears into this one defining role. He plays along charmingly with the joke, rolling with all of El Mechri's punches, but halfway through the film he suddenly breaks the fourth wall, and embarks upon an extraordinary six-minute monologue in which he bemoans the mistakes and embarrassments that have littered his career. As a tearful Van Damme floated towards the ceiling and delivered his soliloquy, I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. Is this great acting? Maybe not, but maybe it's something even more commendable, because it takes a brave man to open himself up to this kind of naked self-analysis on screen, and Van Damme never flinches from the task in hand. I'm not sure if JCVD adds up to much in the end – its deconstruction of celebrity eventually gets lost somewhere in the hostage hubbub – but it is an enjoyable, endlessly surprising and occasionally astonishing picture, which cuts deeper than you might expect. "Nothing! I have done nothing!" Van Damme cries, with real tears running down his cheeks, "I truly believe it's not a movie" – and, for a few amazing minutes, so do we.