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People who know my film tastes can tell you that my favorite movies are those that stray off the beaten path. Film’s that break the fourth wall and involve me as the viewer in the actual plotline always seem to hit the right spot. Chalk up JCVD as another great entry to that style of filmmaking, but also understand that there is a lot more going for it than just being experimental and unafraid to be abnormal. Not only does Jean-Claude Van Damme give possibly his best performance ever—I mean really, really good—but he does so playing a character that is so much like his real life self you would believe this to be an autobiography if you didn’t know better. How director Mabrouk El Mechri talked him into agreeing to this format, I don’t know, but thankfully he did. As an entertaining thriller, bank heist flick it succeeds in spades. However, you should look deeper and see the form of catharsis it must have instilled in Van Damme, finally being able to set the record straight about the women, the money, and the drugs. Complete with a heartfelt monologue that doubles as a prayer to God from JCVD and a plea to the public from Van Damme himself that he has turned his life around, this is just fantastic cinema.

El Mechri has some flair to his work and makes the proceedings exciting. The story is told out of order, with good reason, and broken up with title cards of quotes, (“the stone falls on the egg … the egg breaks” and “the egg falls on the stone … the egg breaks” for example), just remember them because they do become part of the dialogue before the end. And talk about starting with a bang; the entire opening credit sequence is one long take, choreographed to perfection, of Van Damme wreaking havoc on bad guys, kicking them into car windows and saving a hostage. An impressive feat for anyone, let alone a 47-year old action star, it ends very tongue-in-cheek, with a flub followed by an upstart foreign director ignoring his star, wondering why he thinks they are making the next Citizen Kane. Between this moment and the few scenes involving his agent, the satire on Hollywood and its money marketing is handled quite well. Better even than a film like What Just Happened, whose main focus was just that. You really begin to feel for Van Damme and the pressures that brought him back to Belgium after leaving so long ago. A washed up has-been here in the states; he is still the idol of many back in his homeland.

You must give the star a ton of credit for leaving it all out there for this performance. To have to pretty much reenact the courtroom drama of trying to get his daughter’s custody must have been very trying, if not also easy to bring up the emotions necessary to make the scenes work. His utter disgust on how the films he made and the fake violence he inflicted was used against him when it was those same two things that supported his family is there for all to see. Here he is, in a rush to make the post office/bank to wire money so he can retain his attorney, and getting out of his cab still takes the time to pose for photos at a local video store. Despite everything, here is a genuinely kind man, someone who admits to not wanting to have to apologize for his success, for his dream as a thirteen year old coming true. He worked hard and he made it to the top, but sometimes fame can destroy too. A wonderful scene in the cab, talking to the driver shows this very perceptively. Here he is, a tired man who hasn’t slept in two days wanting to rest in the backseat and he gets called rude because the driver is a fan. If he wasn’t a star, his request would have been acknowledged, but for some reason fans feel entitled to a star treating them with “respect”. Maybe there is truth to that, but honestly, it is we the public doing so that makes celebrities so reviled. Our intrusiveness makes them mean and spiteful; we’ve created the monsters.

There is a lot of humor mixed in with the action and suspense. The whole premise revolves around the robbery of a post office/bank for which the police believe JCVD is the perpetrator. As such, the entire city comes out in support of their hero—signs saying “Free Van Damme”—and the police commissioner, played nicely by François Damiens, tries to use the celebrity in his favor. By getting his lawyer on the phone and bringing his parents down to the scene, things start spiraling out of control inside. Things are not always as they seem, however, shown by the repetition of scenes. What is first viewed from the outside of the post office, the start of a robbery while police arrive, becomes completely different when shown again later from the inside, following JCVD as he attempts to get his money wired to Los Angeles.

The medium of film is utilized to its fullest capabilities in this way. We are able to see things multiple times, from differing vantage points; we are allowed a moment alone with the star as he takes himself out of the movie and enters reality in a brilliantly subtle way, raising right out of frame until he’s on level with the stage lights; and we are even shown a scene in Van Damme’s mind, a dream sequence played out before the film rewinds itself and portrays what really happened. Hollywood may love the happy endings of heroes beating all odds and saving the day, but unfortunately real life is never so forgiving. However, despite the cynical way in which the whole ordeal ends, El Mechri does allow for one last moment of heart, completing the film with a sense of quasi-redemption and allowing Van Damme’s catharsis an end he may hopefully see outside of the movies too.

JCVD 9/10

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photography:
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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