The days of mocking Jean-Claude Van Damme as a washed-up meathead who makes cheesy, terrible movies might be over. In “JCVD,” the muscles from Brussels demonstrates stunning self-awareness, proves to be adept at self-deprecation, and — are you sitting down? — performs credibly as an actor of some range and subtlety. It’s kind of disappointing, in a way. I always hoped he would turn out to be a big, dumb slab of cement, not a savvy self-parodist. (But Steven Seagal is still an idiot, right?)
Van Damme plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself who’s in danger of losing custody of his daughter because of the violent movies he makes — and yes, he still makes them, though they’re mostly straight-to-DVD affairs now. “JCVD” has him anxious to make a comeback, still trying to get good scripts, constantly losing parts to Steven Seagal. It’s on top of this career uncertainty that he must deal with his daughter’s custody issue.
In the midst of it all, while visiting his hometown of Brussels, Van Damme becomes caught in a hostage situation exactly like the ones from his films. Only it’s real life this time, so the tricks his characters know don’t work. Plus, he doesn’t actually know those tricks — he’s an actor, not a cop or detective or bad-ass or whatever it is that he usually plays. He’s just some ordinary joe being held with several other captives in a bank by a couple of lowlifes.
Flashback scenes show Van Damme worrying about his career, and paint an interesting picture of the nature of fame, which he understands all too well. He has absorbed every blow to his career like a body check, completely aware of his status as a D-list kitsch celebrity. Rather than laughing at how delusional the has-been is, we’re invited to sympathize with him and root for him to find a way back into showbiz. It leads to a jaw-dropping scene in the climax when Van Damme speaks to the camera directly like a confessor and, in a monologue several minutes in length, pours his heart out. It’s one of the mostly strangely fascinating scenes of any movie this year.
Slyly directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, a hip young French fellow of Algerian extraction who wrote the screenplay with Frederic Benudis and Christophe Turpin, “JCVD” is utterly deadpan, always examining Van Damme’s existential angst with a straight face. Desaturated colors and a melancholy jazz score add to the impression that we’re watching some erudite neo-realist film from the ’60s, while other elements suggest a “Dog Day Afternoon” sort of ’70s action thriller. The way the hostage situation plays out is more clever and suspenseful than most straightforward movies of this genre, and I appreciate that kind of effort. A witty self-parody/comeback vehicle for Van Damme would have been easy enough to make; El Mechri goes the extra mile to make it a good film, too.
B (1 hr., 36 min.; mostly in French with subtitles; )