JCVD Directed by: Mabrouk El Mechri Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra RunningTime: 1 hr 36 mins Rating: R Opens: In Chicago on Nov. 14 at Piper's Alley
Plot: A self-conscious Jean-Claude Van Damme stars in a film about a self-conscious big screen star (himself) whose life has unraveled. As if losing custody of his child, and compiling a long list of tax problems weren’t enough, when our hero ventures into a bank for a loan, he’s offered another scary addition to his list of problems.
Who’s It For? Only life-long Van Damme fans will get the laundry-list of inside jokes only diehards would find amusing. Though we’re all aware of the action-star’s existence, his twenty-plus year career has been largely ignored. He’s never had a critical hit, nor any mainstream cred outside of Steven Seagal territory (shockingly, Seagal’s mentioned in the film as going up for the same meager list of roles), and this film is for a very small group as a result.
Expectations: Van Damme’s fame absolutely overshadows everyone else involved in the film. It’s tough to expect much from a film whose bread-n-butter star shines no brighter than the twilight that shimmers at the end of a (relatively) illustrious career.
Jean-Claude Van Damme as Himself: There is one specific onscreen moment in which Van Damme “takes a minute” and addresses the camera directly. It’s an odd directorial choice that may have very well been at the star’s insistence. It’s odd--you want to believe the real Van Damme is actually on the verge of tears (to explain why, would spoil it) during the monologue, but for some inexplicable reason, this is hardly possible. At the end of the day, this is an action star whose off-screen mistakes are being addressed in a fiction sense, and that does nothing but confuse the logic of how viewers experience the scene. He’s basically trying to con us into believing his acting chops could ever rival his always thrilling martial arts skills. Score: 4
Rest of Cast: None of the supporting casts' names will ring a bell. But let’s be honest—they are asked to do little more than be wallflowers for the story about Van Damme. None of the onscreen relationships are fully explained, and it’s a pet peeve of mine when the director leaves it up to his audience to make sense of why certain characters care about others. It’s baffling: we’ve paid $10 to have to figure out almost all the subtext on our own, while reading subtitles, and trying to convince ourselves Jean-Claude Van Damme can actually act. Each of the employed actors add more to the aesthetic than the plot, and their existence does little to provide a backbone to the story centered on the film’s star. I will say this: collectively, they are quite impressive French-speakers. Score: 4
Talking: Some of this film includes a slew of broken English exchanges between Van Damme and his enemies. Most of the dialogue is delivered in French with subtitles. Aside from Jean-Claude's oddly placed “speech,” much of the conversations are short and to the point: an array or urgently delivered debate (in French), with a consistent spattering of screams contrasted by silence used as efficiently as the intermittent outbursts they reciprocate. Major motion pictures successfully use subtitles in moderation, especially in action films. The last thing you want to do during these films is read. Score: 5
Sights & Sounds: The soundtrack befuddles more than it assists the story. There are oddly placed pop songs that border on folk, and hardly have a place in the background of a film starring Belgium’s most prolific creator of onscreen violence… ever. While the film isn’t shot in black and white, there is an underlying gray-ish tone established by the cinematographer. This actually works, and makes you wish the story was (a) easier to follow, and (b) worth 96 minutes of your time. Score: 6
Best Scene: There is a funny dialogue that takes place between Van Damme and his “number one fan,” a cab-driving old lady who provides the film’s only (much needed) lighthearted moments. The 47-year-old star actually manages to verbally spar with her effectively, so it isn’t just a talented comedic actress tossing curves to an action star left with nothing to retaliate.
Ending: This film tries to be a “thinking man’s action film” throughout, and suffers further by trying to turn its ending into an open-ended explanation of what Van Damme’s learned in the process. There is a craftily included “alternate ending” in which the director chooses to use Fight Club-esque visual razzle-dazzle to sort of say, “fooled you!” Though it showcases a humorous display of fancy footwork and taunting from Van Damme, it’s hardly the necessary ingredient the movie needed to send us home feeling like we’ve spent our time wisely.
Questions: It’s hard to surmise why some critics are calling this Van Damme’s “comeback” movie. Though it was made in order to reinvigorate the aging-stars big-screen potency, it does little to remind us why we’re supposed to miss the man who brought martial arts back in the 1980s. There are certain films that you can’t help but question their existence—this is certainly one of those films.
Rewatchability: Wow. I guess if you’re someone who likes being utterly confused twice by the same film—and not in that impressively layered plot-twist sort of way Tarantino is so well known for, then by all means watch this movie again. Otherwise (and I hope this is the case), one viewing is more than enough.
I get why this film was made. A country’s favorite action hero needed a favor. He needed a talented filmmaker to remind the world why his skills deserve to be appreciated. Not only that, but we’re supposed to actually believe the guy can act—and not just “act,” but deliver a lengthy monologue usually reserved for the Edward Nortons of the world, not the Jean-Claude Van Dammes. Yes, it’s a noble effort. No, it’s not a successful one. Van Damme lacks what Arnold Schwarzenegger has a lot of—A charming foolishness that translates into box office success. He’s too small and too ripped to be the “gentle giant,” and the language barrier just gets in the way. Even California’s present Governor was able to hire a speech coach to make him sound somewhat comprehendible without reverting back to his native tongue. What’s sad about this is the film actually looks good. But aesthetics do very little to promote a film that simply lacks the substance or relevance to keep up with its visual beauty. I’m sure there will be several positive reviews of this film, because many critics are inexplicably sympathetic to aging stars whose best years are well behind them. I am not one of those “critics.”
Final Score: 4/10