What do aging action stars do when they sense their popularity is declining? Some of them, like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, go back to their roots, back to the characters that made them famous. Some, like Steven Seagal, go direct to video. Some, like Chuck Norris, turn to television. And some just become governors of California.
In 2008's "JCVD," Jean-Claude Van Damme chose to poke lighthearted fun at his screen persona, while exploring some serious issues along the way. Playing himself in a fictional adventure, Van Damme drew high praise from critics, but the film ran in a limited U.S. release, thus ensuring that almost nobody here saw it. I have to wonder why. The film is amusing, insightful, touching, truthful, and ultimately entertaining, even if it drags toward the end. I think it may have been mainly the fact that it's different from anything Van Damme has done before. Besides which, there's the title. When I first heard about the film, I had no clue. It sounded like a Japanese electronics firm. It was the same a few years back with the movie "ATL." I had no clue it stood for "Atlanta." Of course, "JCVD" stands for Jean-Claude Van Damme, but who would know?
Anyway, what's in a name? The play's the thing, and "JCVD" is a surprisingly affecting drama. In the movie, Van Damme plays a famous action-movie star named Jean-Claude Van Damme, who is experiencing a mid-life star crisis. As the story begins he's in Brussels, his hometown, filming an extended action sequence, and when he's finished he says to the director, "It's very difficult for me to do everything in one shot. I'm forty-seven." The young Asian director, who looks about twelve years old and who is paying no attention to the scene, could care less. Then we find out that Van Damme's wife has left him, that the court is taking his daughter away from him, that he has no new picture lined up after this one, that his credit cards don't work, and that he's out of money. On top of that, we notice his wrinkles and his thinning hairline. He's still got the physique and the moves, but it's tough getting old.
On the way back from the shoot, he decides to stop and make a withdrawal of what little funds he has left. After posing for a snapshot with an admirer, he goes into a post-office/bank, which just happens to be in the middle of a robbery. A gang of three dim-witted hoodlums are holding the bank employees and a few customers hostage inside. They have no choice but to take Van Damme hostage as well.
Now, here's the thing: You'd think this would be the perfect setup for a typical Van Damme flick. He'd become the hero, vanquish the baddies, and save the day. Not so. Not only is this not a typical Van Damme picture, it isn't even a typical action picture. Indeed, it isn't even an action picture. Instead, it's a partly serious, partly comedic drama, with Van Damme behaving just as he might if the situation had arisen in real life.
The police soon surround the building, and when the holdup men force Van Damme to phone them from inside the bank, the police assume that Van Damme is in on the holdup himself. Within moments, news gets out that Jean-Claude Van Damme is holed up in a bank, trying to rob it. Not only do about 800 SWAT team members arrive, so do about 8,000 Van Damme fans, all cheering and rooting for their favorite movie star.
If any of this reminds you of "Dog Day Afternoon," it's the same premise. And if you remember, "Dog Day Afternoon" had its comical moments. The head baddie even resembles actor John Cazale from "Dog Day." Van Damme has to try to keep his wits about him. The stickup men begin arguing among themselves. The police begin arguing among themselves. The scene becomes a media circus, and Van Damme's lawyer disowns him.
"JCVD" is more about the aging process and the moviemaking process than it is about any kind of action. The director, Mabrouk El Mechri, creates a film-noir tone shooting in near black-and-white and using a semidocumentary style, often a handheld camera, and multiple flashbacks to tell his tale. He also employs a minimal musical track, sometimes only percussion, in the manner of an old "Dragnet" episode. In fact, it's the quiet between the sound effects and music that is most effective, the quiet used almost for its shock value in itself.
We see Van Damme fighting with his director, his producer, his agent, and his lawyer as much as we see him fighting with the police and the bad guys. We see Van Damme's public and private life up close and personal, making for a bittersweet, comedic story. "I thought he would be taller," says a fan, "but he's short." When one of the baddies, also a fan, asks him about his next picture, Van Damme admits he didn't get the part he wanted. "Steven Seagal got the part," he says. "He cut off his locks...his ponytail."
In a climactic scene, Van Damme goes into an amazing monologue, a soliloquy, in which he bares his soul to us, and we realize that this is one of the most intimate movies the man has ever made. The fellow can act, a revelation that audiences must find as hard-hitting as any action sequence Van Damme ever shot.
No, this is not your usual Van Damme movie, which is probably the reason it didn't do well with American audiences, and, yeah, it runs out of story ideas long before the final curtain. Van Damme is not a hero here in the conventional sense; instead, he's an all-too-vulnerable human being. While it's a refreshing change of pace for the actor, one can easily understand how it would disappoint his legion of action fans. Be that as it may, "JCVD" marks a turning point in Van Damme's career and proves he can actually turn in a moving performance. Maybe that fact, if not the movie's box-office receipts, will encourage him to pursue more serious roles. Let us hope.
Peace Arch Home Entertainment present the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio using an anamorphic widescreen transfer. The film quality of the print is intentionally soft and monochromatic, so that's about we get for the DVD picture. The whole film, outside and interior shots, comprises sepia tones--bland browns, grays, and blacks--suggesting the black-and-white footage of 1940s and '50s film noir. Natural lighting or something close to it provides a dusky, dusty, shady atmosphere, which does not allow much shadow detail. The film's object delineation is a bit rough, and where the standard definition really appears uneven is in the subtitles, which look positively ragged.
The audio track comes to us via Dolby Digital 5.1 and sounds quite dynamic, clear, and clean. It's a little bright and forward, true, but otherwise we find strong, taut bass, a wide front-channel stereo spread, and excellent directionality from the surround speakers. The audio quality is a definite step up from the disc's intentionally bland video, so enjoy it.
The primary extras on the disc are a pair of deleted scenes, totaling about five minutes, and a theatrical trailer. It isn't much, but given the film's lackluster theatrical performance, it was probably all the studio could afford.
In addition, the disc contains twenty scene selections; trailers at start-up; theatrical, French, and English versions of the film, meaning it comes in French, French with English subtitles, and dubbed English. There are also French and Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
To call "JCVD" purely comedic would be unfair. There are moments of comedy in it, to be sure, and certainly Van Damme seems to enjoy the self-deprecating humor. But the movie is, above all, a soul-searching drama, with the star showing us he is more than a hunk of meat and muscle. He's a worthy actor, and perhaps as his karote-chopping days pass by him, he'll distinguish himself as a serious thespian. We'll see.