You have to admire JCVD. It’s just too breathlessly run on bravado for harsh words, even if it’s not all that profound or original. The film, basically a cross between Being John Malkovich and Last Action Hero, opens with a long, single take of Jean-Claude Van Damme himself, kicking and gouging his way across an urban war zone with hot 1970s funk decrying “hard times” in the background. It won’t take long to guess what’s actually happening, though getting the joke early somehow spices up the payoff. Afterward, when the “real” Van Damme argues through an interpreter with a Japanese director, he’s vulgarly dismissed. “Just because he brought John Woo to Hollywood, he thinks he can rub my dick with sandpaper,” the nameless director says. “He thinks we are making Citizen Kane.”
The movie we watch-studded with chapter-titles, flashbacks, and self-conscious breaks-sometimes seems as onion-layered and obsessed with ego as Kane, though. The “real film” unspools a story of the “real” Van Damme experiencing a midlife and midcareer crisis, returning to his “real” hometown of Belgium where he stumbles into a hostage situation made dicier because everybody thinks he’s responsible. And the fans are wildly cool with that.
But JCVD doesn’t take a lot of time for irony. Its monochromatic moments include a dissipated Laurence Olivier lookalike, two Middle Eastern video clerks complaining about stereotypes in action films until they meet the man himself, and JCVD’s weeping mom. But the film’s highpoint comes when Van Damme, huddled with hostages, suddenly starts rising out of the picture, breaking not only the fourth wall, but the ceiling too. His seven-minute monologue confession borders on Godard-like poetry. (This is an art film, by the way, fan boys.) It was also unbelievably moving.
The film may not prick your system of philosophical illusions, but it does overturn one assumption. Early on, Van Damme tells his agent he would like to act in a real dramatic film. He can do it, given a chance, he says. By the end of JCVD you’ll most likely agree.