JCVD might be the ultimate vanity project. I’m not sure if there’s any intention in Van Damme trying to rehabilitate his image–his fans will be his fans no matter what, something the film touches on–but it’s kind of spectacular in its purity. Van Damme’s a well-known punch line, a leftover from the 1990s, and he knows it. What’s strangest about the film is that self-awareness. Van Damme gives a good performance as “himself,” even if his movie personality is a little different (more affecting but generally true) than the real Van Damme.
It’s a rouse–there’s a long aside, which starts on shaky ground because of its presentation (and what’s a theatrical aside doing in a rather cinéma vérité film) but eventually comes around because Van Damme’s actually really good delivering it. He kind of loses it at the end, but due to the presentation technicalities, not his delivery. But part of JCVD is accepting the rouse, participating in it. It’s Van Damme laughing at himself, but not so much, because he’s one of maybe three people who could make a movie like this one.
Nothing I’d read about the film actually prepared me for its actual content. JCVD drops a cheesy action movie star in the middle of a real bank robbery. That Van Damme’s in his native Belgium where everyone loves him–regardless of this detail’s veracity, it’s constantly amusing–turns the unlikely situation into Dog Day Afternoon. The dynamics of the bank robbery are what set JCVD apart. It’s a movie situation handled in an anti-cinematic manner. The bank is awkwardly laid-out, so it’s hard to know where people are located, not the ideal for the hostage drama. The dynamic between the robbers–one idolizes Van Damme, another is seriously disturbed, none are very smart–provides a lot of drama to the film, which lets Van Damme sort of be.
Van Damme’s bad day–a failed custody hearing, money troubles, career woes–all comes off as a little contrived. It’s effective because of El Mechri and his approach. There are frequent small cuts to give off the vérité feel; they work, even if they’re somewhat suspect. And Van Damme’s willing to mock himself, his image and everything else. But he’s mostly laughing at the audience, because the film’s positing its Van Damme could never do anything like this film, this singularity in a career otherwise exclusively straight to DVD, but here he is doing it and succeeding at it.
In the end, Van Damme doesn’t actually pull it off. He tries to though and makes the grade for effort. It’s strange to watch him act in the last scenes, because he’s trying real, real hard, but he can’t attain the sublime. But it’s fine acting and the film’s full of it. But since he’s the whole show, it’s hard to talk about anyone else.
If JCVD were a coda, it’d be a coda to a career undeserving of it, but it’s not a coda. Even if it’s unable to achieve the singularity it’s going for, it’s still distinct.
Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri; written by Frédéric Bénudis, Mechri and Christophe Turpin; director of photography, Pierre-Yves Bastard; edited by Lako Kelber; music by Gast Waltzing; produced by Sidonie Dumas; released by Gaumont.
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (JCVD), François Damiens (Bruges), Zinedine Soualem (the man with the bonnet), Karim Belkhadra (the watchmen), Jean-François Wolff (the thirty-one-year old) and Anne Paulicevich (the clerk).