Film review – JCVD (2008)

Jean-Claude Van Damme

Jean-Claude Van Damme

JCVD is one of the most unexpected films of the past few years. For a start who would have expected that the 1980s and 1990s martial arts action superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme would ever make a comeback? Who would have expected that the comeback would take the form of a Belgian art-house film influenced by Sidney Lumet’s 1975 hostage drama Dog Day Afternoon? Who would have expected that the resulting film would be so good? Finally, who would have honestly thought that Van Damme would give such an amazing performance, making his comeback one to rival Micky Rourke’s in The Wrestler?

Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, JCVD is an extraordinary film that truly defies categorisation. A lot of its humour and references rely on the audience having some knowledge and interest in action cinema and yet the film itself is more of a drama/thriller. Having said that, the opening credits sequence is an astonishing long shot featuring Van Damme in full action mode as a one-man army. The shot is obviously a staged sequence and yet it is still very exciting, demonstrating the enticing contradictions that comprise JCVD.  The whole film is self-aware without ever feeling like a parody or overly self-conscious and yet it is so cinematically playful. It also messes around with narrative structure, having the middle section of the story appear in the film before the first section. This mainly serves to create the early dramatic tension in JCVD, where Van Damme, who is burdened by all sorts of personal and professional problems, appears to have snapped and held up a post office in Brussels.

jcvd1Just as John Malkovich did in Being John Malkovich and Steve Coogan did in A Cock and Bull Story (also known as Tristram Shandy) Van Damme plays a version of himself in JCVD. However, unlike Malkovich and Coogan, the version of himself that Van Damme plays does not feel like that much of a self-caricature. He is a tired man who is feeling his age and cannot get the parts that he used to. He is also aware that his career has not exactly been a distinguished one and that he is forever burdened by the way both his fans and detractors perceive him. The key scene in JCVD is an extraordinary continuous shot where the illusion of reality breaks down and Van Damme is lifted up into the lighting rig above the set to deliver a six minute long monologue directly into the camera. It is a startling moment that was done in one take, unrehearsed and largely improvised. Van Damme discusses his life, his career, stardom, love, drugs, karate and Hollywood. The line between Van Damme the actor and Van Damme the character was already very tenuous in JCVD and in this scene you truly feel like this man is pouring his heart out to you. It is as powerful and convincing a performance as any of the acclaimed performances from more ‘respectable’ actors from the past 10 years. It is very much part of what makes JCVD the enjoyable and fascinating oddity that it is.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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4 Responses to Film review – JCVD (2008)

  1. Benicio says:

    I had no idea what it was when I sat down to watch it other than Van Damme trying something more serious.

    It was a strange, fun and at times brutally honest look at the life of Van Damme the movie star and Van Damme the man.

    I live for odd gems like this.

  2. Paul Martin says:

    I completely agree with your evaluation, Thomas. That monologue is reminiscent of Shohei Imamura’s A Man Vanishes (it screened at MIFF 2007). It tears down the fourth wall, but in a way that is a mind-fuck because you don’t know at that moment what is to be made of what we’ve just seen, or what is to follow. In Imamura’s film, the set walls are removed, the film’s documentary facade is exposed, and yet the illusion continues, which confounds the audience.

    The references to Dog Day Afternoon were great, having just watched it recently. The look of that guy was so similar, as well as what happens to him…

    I think this is one of the best films screening at present, and is refreshingly different even in its derivations without, as you say, falling into parody. It’s the best performance from Van Damme, for sure, and I also compare it to Rourke’s in The Wrestler.

  3. I wasn’t in Melbourne (or Australia for that matter) in 2007 so I’m not familiar with A Man Vanishes but I will now track it down – thanks for the recommendation Paul. In fact, I think the only Shōhei Imamura film I’ve seen is the short he contributed to 11’9”01 September 11. My sister (who is far more on the ball with Japanese cinema, and culture in general, than I am) speaks highly of Black Rain so that’s another one I will track down.

    Anyway, it’s great to have two other endorsements for JCVD so thanks for that guys. I was getting worried because when I reviewed it on the radio a couple of weeks ago, my co-host wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about it as I was. I was starting to get worried that I had been too easily impressed but your comments have reinstalled my confidence in my original thoughts. JCVD really is one of the most interesting films doing the rounds at the moment.

  4. Paul Martin says:

    MIFF did a retrospective and I saw 6 of them (I think I missed one). Black Rain is good but A Man Vanishes was my pick of the ones I saw. The Eel is supposed to be one of his best films, but I don’t think that was screening.

    When I mentioned that the sets came down in A Man Vanishes, I perhaps wasn’t explicit in connecting that to the JCVD monologue. One gets the sense when Van Damme talks to the camera, that there will be some exposition about what has transpired, and it’s unclear what will pass. Both films have the effect of being a minor mind-fuck in this regard.

    IMO, Imamura’s film is the best to tear down the fourth wall.

    As for your radio co-host, we’ll all have different opinions. The film is definitely very clever. That opening sequence synchronised to music was a blast. The film has many strengths; what I liked most was its mixture of humour, action, drama and pathos, the mixture of reality and fiction, and the references to other films.

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