Friday, January 23, 2009

Van Damage Has Been Done

D. Mabrouk El Merchri

It is pretty easy to take pot shots at Jean Claude Van Damme. Lots of people have done it over the years. His stiff acting and over reliance on his martial arts have made him a point of ridicule in the industry. But he is also a reliable action star. You have to remember back in the 90's his films made money. A Van Damme flick, though never huge box office, was always a solid investment. His fans were loyal and his overseas market was huge. He was the first action star smart enough to start bringing in the Hong Kong directing talent to make his films starting with John Woo for Hard Target and then Ringo Lam with Maximum Risk (My favorite Van Damme movie btw) and then plenty more. But the rise of the huge budget Michael Bay blockbuster action film swept people like Van Damme and Steven Seagal under the rug of the industry. Add to that their own personal problems and they were relegated to the straight to DVD graveyard where they remain to this day. Which is sad because actually some of Van Damme's recent output has been rather good. Especially a flick called The Shepard. So now the man is in his late forties and in a reflective mood. There is no better time to make a movie about himself and his career.

In JCVD Van Damme plays himself. He has come home to Brussels to make another action film and possibly reboot his career if possible. His life is falling apart at the seams. He is having massive tax problems and is in a huge custody battle with his Ex-wife over their 8 year old daughter. His own films are being used against him in court making him look like an unfit father. Still he puts on a good face for fans in the streets who stop him. He is home after all. He stops in a bank/post office after greeting a couple of such fans one afternoon and the bank is held up. But to the outside world it looks as if He is the one doing the robbing. Hostages are taken, including Van Damme. The cops think he is the person in charge because the robbers start using him as the contact with the public and police. Van Damme uses this situation to extort some money for himself to pay for his lawyer bill so he can continue his custody case. But it is beginning to look like no one is going to get out of the hostage situation alive.

The film is structured in a flashback heavy format that may be daunting to the casual viewer. Things will move around in time, or play out in multiple points of view that demand you do some keeping up. This allows us an intimate view into the life and inner workings of Jean Claude Van Damme the character, which happens to be very much Jean Claude Van Damme the human being. This is no action hero. This is a broken man, at the end of his rope. Not so much because of the robbery, but because life has beaten him down. A man that hit his peak, but was torn down for it. A man who had big dreams for himself in an industry that lives to tear apart its own. IN a moment that many have criticized Van Damme breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience giving a soliloquy about his time in Hollywood vs his time learning martial arts. He discusses how in learning martial arts he was taught honor and respect. To trust your instincts and your master. And how in Hollywood it was all about how you can fuck the next guy. He open talks about his drug addictions and losing his family. He ends the scene weeping openly at what he lost and what he needs to regain. It is incredibly emotional and powerful. I would call it his best acting, except I don't think the man was acting at all. I think it was all heartfelt and truthful. There are other more lighthearted scenes where he reflects on his career too. Where he is discussing his films with one of the more likable robbers who is a fan. Their discussions of John Woo for instance are a riot. Another telling scene is when Van Damme discussing with his agent about why he keeps getting him these no budget movies. About how he would be willing to work for scale instead of his normal multi million salary if the movies were better, so they could put the money towards making a better movie. But his agent doesn't want to hear it and just offers him drugs.

I'm making the film sound much more serious than it is. While it is a serious movie, it is also funny at times too, though not as funny as the trailer makes it look. What the does consist of is Van Damme exorcising his demons and letting us know he is more than just the guy who kicks ass and shows his ass on screen.

The film is stylishly directed and shot with a limited color palette that fits the sort of nostalgic tone the movie sets. The lighting is moody and usually lit from above to emphasize the noirish moments. The film is mostly in English with scenes in French as well.

Truly a fantastic film and had I seen it in 2007 it would have easily made my top ten.

Andy C


  1. "maximum risk" rules!

    been waiting for JCVD to get released. guess i'll be seeing it on JCVDDVD.

  2. Maximum Risk gets the short shift in my opinion. I like how it is street smart, gritty, and interpersonal. I also think the sex scene with Natasha Henstridge is really good. They actually had a good chemistry which is rare in this kind of movie. I loved how the scene was built with this desperation of "well we are probably going to die, so lets fuck!" Awesome.