JCVD (2008) Review

"JCVD" US Theatrical Poster

"JCVD" US Theatrical Poster

AKA: J.C.V.D.
Director: Mabrouk El Mechri
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra, Jean-François Wolff, Anne Paulicevich, Saskia Flanders, Dean Gregory, Kim Hermans
Running Time: 96 min.

By Mighty Peking Man

Back in 1988, I remember walking into a video rental store and taking a chance with an unknown, newly-released movie called Bloodsport. Not only did the catchy title of the movie interest me, but so did the odd image of some muscle-bound white guy, who sported a spandex-like Karate outfit – it wasn’t exactly your common martial artist’s attire.

Once I pressed play, adjusted the tracking, and got through a couple of Cannon Film preview trailers, it didn’t take long to realize that there was magic happening on the TV. To simply put it, Bloodsport was a phenomenon, especially to a kid in his early teens.

It was the beginning of the kickboxing boom and the arrival of Jean-Claude Van Damme, aka The Muscles from Brussels, who made the sport popular onscreen. All of the sudden, Saturday afternoon kung fu movies were a no longer exciting, ninja flicks were out of style and Chuck Norris was a corny joke.

It only took a year or two before the rest of the world caught on to this Belgian martial arts star. Each of his new movies released after the other became more and more polished. Roland Emmerich, future ID4/Godzilla director, experimented with him in Universal Soldier. John Woo, a living legend of Hong Kong action film, directed him in Hard Target (rumor has it that it was Van Damme who hooked him up with Universal Pictures). Peter Hyams, a critically acclaimed filmmaker, brought him to his peak in Timecop. Steven E. de Souza, writer of Die Hard, cast him as Guile, in the live-action Street Fighter movie, adapted from the immensly popular video game of the same name.

Van Damme was officially a household name, a box office champ, and held a career strong enough to go head-to-head with some of the Hollywood’s biggest action stars. In a way, he had a one-up on heavies like Stallone and Schwarzenegger; not only did he have the physique, charm and charisma; he also had the martial arts training, as well as the ability to do the splits and actually look cool in the process (well, back then, at least).

Then the late 1990’s came. Big budget movies like the self-directed The Quest was a box office failure. Hong Kong’s best were brought in to add a new edge in his films, like Ringo Lam’s Maximum Risk and Tsui Hark’s Double Team – both decent, but it was too late and the public didn’t care anymore.

People were now interested in the 2nd coming of Jackie Chan, who struck instant stardom in Hollywood, when his Hong Kong-made Rumble in the Bronx was re-released in the states. Chan’s hair-raising fight choreography made Van Damme seem slow, boring and antique. Chan did most of his own stunts, while body doubles were becoming more and more visible in Van Damme’s movies, even during the most simple feats.

Even Van Damme’s personal life was on the rocks. Domestic violence, numerous marriages, bar fights and drug abuse. You name it. The media had a field day.

Despite all his troubles, Van Damme was given another chance with moderately budget, theatrically released movies. 1998’s Knock-Off – which was again directed by Tsui Hark, written by Steven E. de Souza, with fights choreographed by Sammo Hung – was a cutting edge movie that was way ahead of its time, but its corny overtones made it sink at the box office and was panned by critics everywhere.

1999’s Universal Soldier: The Return was his final theatrical release, but it didn’t do so well either. By this time, Jet Li had followed Jackie Chan’s footsteps and was the new talk-of-the-town, especially after his impressive supporting role in Lethal Weapon 4.

Van Damme was now a has-been. From 1999 on, he made over a dozen straight-to-video movies ranging from decent (In Hell, Replicant) to embarrassing (Derailed). It was amazing how a guy went from A-list action star to competing with Don “The Dragon” Wilson in the straight-to-video market.

This brings us up to 2008. As his latest straight-to-video movies were still popping up, teaser trailers for a strange foreign movie starring Van Damme began to show up online. Even more odd was the fact that it was called JCVD, obviously standing for Jean-Claude Van Damme. By the time the time a full trailer was released, it was apparent that JCVD was going to be unlike anything Van Damme has ever done.

Okay, enough with Van Damme 101, and on with the actual review of the movie:

JCVD is a French film directed by French-Algerian director Mabrouk El Mechri, and starring Van Damme as himself, a fallen action star whose career is headed nowhere, and he is about to lose his daughter in a legal battle with his ex-wife. To make matters worse, he finds himself in the middle of a post office heist.

The opening of the film has Van Damme filming a movie (within the movie) and features an impressive one-take, action extravaganza, featuring everything from his trademark martial arts moves to killing enemies using any means necessary – and it’s all him. No body doubles at all – at least, none that I notice. As soon as the filming is over, Van Damme is whining about how he’s too old to do single long takes. The Asian director ignores him and makes the crude remark: “Just because he brought John Woo to Hollywood doesn’t mean be can rub my dick with sandpaper.”

What follows are more jokes that are along the same lines, most of which are based on his factual career – including references to Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris and again, John Woo. Then there’s the conversations with his agent about how he needs a cash-advance from an upcoming straight-to-video flick he has yet to film – to pay his legal fees – because his lawyer is threatening to quit the custody case, due to late payments from Van Damme.

One of the most important scenes in the movie has Van Damme performing a six-minute, one-take monologue. He talks about his rise, his drug problems, his numerous wives and his fall. It’s a emotionally charged scene where he cuts his heart out and dumps it on the floor for all the world to see. It’s probably the first time anyone will notice just how good his acting can be. It’s so good that you believe every word he says – and every word that he says IS a true.

The best way to sum up JCVD is to think of it as Dog Day Afternoon meets Being John Malkovich meets E! True Hollywood Story. Don’t expect an action movie, because you’ll be very disappointed. What you can expect is a great performance in an unconventional, but very entertaining film.

Van Damme is definitely back. Not as an action star, but as an actor.

Mighty Peking Man’s Rating: 8/10

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