Directed by: Mabrouk El Mechri
Premise: Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a dramatized version of himself. While struggling through family and financial problems, Van Damme finds himself in a situation right out of his films when he becomes a hostage in a bank robbery.
What Works: JCVD is an attempt to make an avant-garde action film and it mostly succeeds. Although it’s too much to say that this film is metatextual or even a satire, it does manage some passing commentary on conceptions of heroism as they are presented in action movies and embodied by the male stars of those films. Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a dramatized version of himself; the Van Damme of JCVD struggles with very human challenges such as his family and finances and that humanity contrasts with the way in which everyone reacts to him as a movie star. His character has a tragic dimension and Van Damme’s performance is impressive because it overcomes a considerable obstacle; when recognizable movie stars attempt to elicit sympathy for themselves it often comes across as crass and unappreciative of the many benefits they enjoy as a celebrity. But in JCVD, Van Damme is able to create a great deal of pathos appeal for his character because of the humanity of his performance. In the process, he also sets up an interesting contrast between the self-reliant supermen that he portrays in his action films and the exhausted and needy human being who is being held at gunpoint. This point is amplified by the impressive technical craft and storytelling of JCVD. The filmmakers make smart technical decisions and employ unique cinematic flourishes to reinforce the unique narrative qualities of the story. At one point, Van Damme breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera directly, soliloquizing the confessions of a washed up movie star. In the climax, the filmmakers actually disrupt reality with a false ending that reminds us that we are viewing a film, and the optimistic fantasy of the triumphant hero contrasts with the pessimistic irony of the everyday. This complicated and layered portrayal of reality makes JCVD at the very least an interesting and unpredictable film that warrants multiple viewings.
What Doesn’t: Viewers who come to JCVD expecting a revisitation of the kinds of film Van Damme used to make will likely be disappointed. This film is geared less towards Van Damme’s fan base and more towards an intellectual or film-oriented audience. Viewers who are interested in the relationship between art and daily life will find JCVD interesting viewing but those looking for a return to 1980s and 90s action pictures will not find it here.
DVD extras: Trailer, deleted scenes.
Bottom Line: JCVD is a challenging and interesting take on the relationship between art and life. Although it is flawed, the film ranks among the better attempts at this kind of meta-filmmaking such as New Nightmare, Peeping Tom, and 8½.
Episode: #337 (May 1, 2011)