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.
Just 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.