Saturday, September 06, 2008


(Belgium/Luxemborg/France, 2008)
Written by: Mabrouk El Mechri, Frederic Bendusi, and Christophe Turpin
Directed by: Mabrouk El Mechri
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Francois Damiens, Saskia Flanders, Karim Belkhadra, Alan Rossett

Jean-Claude Van Damme is just about the last person I ever thought I'd see given the Charlie Kaufman treatment, but in what the programmers have labeled a "discovery year" (read: "What? No Miike?"), here it is and it's the damnedest thing: Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD has become, incredibly, one of TIFF 2008's most talked-about films, and one of the few Midnight Madness sell-outs in that program's 20 year history. It's also the first Van Damme effort I've sat through top-to-bottom since, well, whatever the last DTV potboiler was in which he played another set of kickboxing twins/clones, and I don't think I've shelled out money for a JCVD theatrical feature since Maximum Risk (wait, wasn't he a twin in that one, too?). While I found him to be a skilled martial artist (on the other hand, I always thought that if pushed, I could take flabby Seagal), he never struck me as particularly charismatic, and his choice of scripts smacked of leftovers from the Golan/Globus era. Turns out I may have been wrong--for once, it didn't take a Tarantino homage to convince me to reevaluate another washed-up B-movie icon.

Although QT's spirit can certainly be felt throughout, with its mobius loop structure, dizzying tonal shifts, verbal duels overstuffed with cinematic ephemera (mostly en francais, but hey...), hell, there's even a vintage soul track over the opening titles. It's an amazing trick--managing to work as a show business satire, gripping kidnapping yarn, blistering autobiographical confessional--and not a word of it is true.

The film opens with the single best action sequence Van Damme has ever done: to the oft-sampled groove of Curtis Mayfield's "Hard Times" (the superior Baby Huey cover), our man storms a desert camp and, in a stunning four-minute continuous take, dispatches various nogoodnicks who come at him with everything from guns to knives to flamethrowers in a sinewy ballet of bomb blasts and broken limbs. That is, until our hero reaches the enemy bunker and one of the flats falls over. The young hack directing the spectacle demands another take, to his star's exhausted protests ("I'm 47 years old!"). But JCVD's has little choice but to comply--his funds are tight, and he's in the midst of a child custody trial, where his filmography is the key evidence used against him as proof as to why he's unfit as a single parent to his daughter (Flanders).

His bottomfeeding Hollywood agent (Rossett) tries to sell him on another action cheapie shot in Bulgaria, but Van Damme pleads a shot at a studio film, even in a smaller role. He takes a time-out to his home in Schaarbeek to visit his family and reboot. After posing dutifully with some fans (who just seconds earlier were dissing violent American genre cinema), he rushes to the post-office to collect a wire transfer of a cash advance on his next project.

Flash forward: the police have formed a tactical command post around the post-office, led by Chief Bruges (Damiens). It appears that JCVD has suffered a psychotic meltdown and has taken the staff and customers hostage in return for a hefty ransom. The local media has a field day--it's Belgium, after all--vintage interviews replayed and dissected, his parents are brought in to help negotiate, and the adoring throng cheers on the local boy as an anti-hero.

Of course, a flashback reveals that JCVD has had the sh*t luck to wander in on the midst of a robbery, and has been snatched as a hostage by the bickering small-time hoods, who have been handed the ultimate cover and escape insurance. But even armed sociopaths can be starstruck, which a defeated and jet-lagged JCVD must manipulate to his advantage...

So what we have here is a little Costa Gavras, a little Curb Your Enthusiasm, a little F Is For Fake, a little of The Gong Show Movie (no, not Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind in which Kaufman proposed a ''what-if" scenario based on Barris' autobiography--I mean The Gong Show Movie, a little-seen 1980 oddity in which Barris played himself facing a fictional frenzied day). There's some great fun to be had for committed fans, who'll nod knowingly at the potshots taken at John Woo (a kidnapper quips: "If it wasn't for you, he'd still be shooting pigeons in Hong Kong") and fellow 80s/90s action icon Steven Seagal (who steals a role from JCVD after promising to cut his ponytail).

The film's standout moment occurs past the mid-point, where JCVD breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly. In another continuous take, as he's raised by crane up into the soundstage rafters, Van Damme delivers a raw, self-damning monologue in which he thanks us, the viewers, for helping him realize his boyhood dream, speaks candidly of his downward spiral into drug addiction, and fights back tears as he professes his love for his daughter and his fear of his possible fate. It's a powerful, unexpected detour and quite a feat of performance--not only because of who it is we're empathizing with, but even more so when one realizes the hostage scenario and degrading media circus that has driven him to such cathartic candor is completely fabricated! His daughter, his ex-wife, his parents, his agent--are all played by actors (to cynics who will snigger that it's too easy to play oneself, I'll offer Aerosmith's Steven Tyler in Be Cool as a counter-argument...).

Shot with all the style and gusto one would expect from a guy who obviously spent too much of his youth hoarding import laserdiscs and pouring over bootleg tables at conventions, JCVD is an impressive debut from first-timer Mechri and a long-overdue--but who knew it?--introduction to the real (?) Jean-Claude Van Damme. It's a pleasure to have finally met your acquaintence, sir--and Double Team is forgiven…

©Robert J. Lewis 2008