Shown in the market last May at Cannes, Jean-Claude Van Damme's JCVD garnered a surprise critical cult. Audiences, midnight or otherwise, may never warm to this low-budget whatzit, but Van Damme's self-reflexive turn gave movie journalists plenty to mull over. Had Belgium's contribution to international kick-sock-pow cinema been hanging out with Belgium's most famous filmmakers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne? Or pondering the paintings of René Magritte?
JCVD wastes little time working itself into a pretzel. The action begins under the credits with Jean-Claude working his way through a crazy urban battlefield accompanied by a Curtis Mayfield blaxploitation ballad. As funny as anything in Tropic Thunder, this exceedingly long take ends with a falling flat (the aging actor having missed his mark) and a tantrum thrown by the movie's Chinese director. Van Damme, lest we forget, was partially responsible for bringing John Woo to Hollywood to make Hard Target (1994). Back then, Sight & Sound characterized Van Damme as "an actor of small range, not given to suggesting self-doubt." It's precisely those traits that JCVD exploits.
Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri (whose previous feature, Virgil, concerned an over-the-hill boxer), JCVD holds a funhouse mirror to its star. Jean-Claude is next seen in family court fighting for custody of his daughter as his wife's attorney enters his DVDs as evidence against him. Suddenly, he's back in his Belgian hometown, making an inadvertent stir. "He left this shithole for Hollywood!" the people cry. Maybe so, but it's not long before he finds himself in a Jean-Claude Van Damme situation, held hostage in the local post office. Crowds of fans—eventually including his agitated actual parents—surge outside while the cops, who have set up a command center in the local video store, think that he's the hostage-taker. The movie, whose default style is a murky, sepia-tinged haze, keeps trying to start over. Thus, Jean-Claude is frequently on the phone begging his agent for better material, until the agent fires him on TV.
JCVD is all about the hassle of being JCVD, but self-parody effectively precludes self-pity. In the most remarkable sequence, this hitherto limited actor launches into a lengthy soliloquy on his reasons for making this movie, explaining why he took up karate and recounting his feelings about celebrity (as well as America, women, and drugs). With its undercurrent of movie music and heartfelt clichés, Van Damme's confession would hardly seem out of place in a '60s Godard film. Back in Belgium to start his life over, the star despairs that he's done nothing worthwhile on this earth and fears he might die in the post office. It's near risible, but who would dare laugh? Jean-Claude is really crying!
Having visited the far side of the moon, JCVD pulls itself together and reverts to action—after a fashion. The climax is a burst of chaotic, vérité-style confusion in which Jean-Claude kicks his way to freedom. While various characters take turns "acting," the film jumps anxiously in the projector, and the director himself sings the old Solomon Burke lament "None of Us Are Free."
Van Damme's habitual lack of expression enables JCVD's wild tonal swings. What exactly is JCVD? Comedy? Confession? Confusion? No one will ever mistake these backstage shenanigans for Irma Vep. But as a self-regarding expression of masculine angst, it's a Damme sight more fun than Synecdoche, New York.