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Movie Review: JCVD

Van Damme’s softer side hits hard
Genres: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 92 min
Release Date: 2008-11-07
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By "Lawrence Toppman (rates on a 4-star scale)"
The Charlotte Observer

“Oh, he's just playing himself!” Is there more dismissive praise for an actor? How hard can it be, after all, to stand in front of a camera and project your own personality? The answer is “Mighty hard.” The camera embraces some of us and rejects others, however natural they seem. You may not be versatile if you always show the audience variations on the same personality, but you're certainly an actor.

Jean-Claude Van Damme proves it in “J.C.V.D.,” where he spoofs his hard-guy image from martial arts films and reveals a more sensitive side. Or perhaps that's a trick, too, another mask he puts on to appeal to us. Either way, you'll respect him more as an actor if you see this film – and you should, even if you haven't enjoyed the action movies he's made over two decades.

It begins with the star shooting yet another generic, low-budget piece of mayhem for a director trying to make the quickest and easiest buck. (This, at least, must be autobiographical for a guy who has “Until Death,” “The Hard Corps,” “Wake of Death” and “In Hell” on his recent resume.) JCVD – I'll call the character that to distinguish him from Van Damme the actor – takes work like this to pay lawyers who are trying to get him custody of his daughter. His ex-wife has branded him an irresponsible man with an addictive personality, and JCVD sees his personal happiness drifting away.

He enters a post office in his native Belgium to send a mail-order payment to these L.A. lawyers, but everyone there is being held hostage by robbers, who seize him. They have a bright idea: When the cops eventually come calling, let JCVD be the “face” of the gang. The police have heard about his volatile streak and drug-tinged past, right? So JCVD has to figure out how not to get shot and help the hostages, who expect him to save them with roundhouse kicks to the bad guys' heads.

Director Mabrouk El Mechri, who wrote the script with Frederic Benudis, plays with Van Damme's public image. Is he the patient fellow we see trying to calm the robbers and reassure the hostages, or is he a hero awaiting his chance to uncoil like a deadly spring? The film retells the action from three points of view – JCVD's, the robbers' and the cops' – and everyone has different expectations and preconceptions. One old lady who meets him for only a few moments and suffers a justified rebuff harangues him ever afterward, though he apologizes profusely.

The depiction that emerges is that of a sad, tired man approaching 50, wishing vainly to break out of the prison of action movies. At one point, he faces the camera for a quiet and slightly harrowing monologue, explaining how ego and ambition shot him to the top of the financial heap but kept him from achieving his potential as a human being.

We feel sorry for JCVD – and for Van Damme himself, as this monologue is based on his real actions – and realize, perhaps for the first time, that the actor can hold us with only his sweating face and softly determined voice. Maybe he's baring his soul, maybe he's pretending. Either way, the scene suggests he can someday inhabit a movie world where no one lands a punch.

I wonder if we'll ever know. He's writing and directing something personal called “Full Love,” which will feature his real-life children, but it's not likely to get much of a release in the United States. Then he's back to “Universal Soldier III: A New Beginning,” so the gentler Van Damme may disappear after just two pictures. If he does, I'm happy at least to have made his acquaintance.

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12/04/2008 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman (rates on a 4-star scale)

The action hero spoofs his macho image and gives a powerful performance as a middle-age man looking back at his lost potential.

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