Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra, Jean-François Wolff, Anne Paulicevich
Written by: Mabrouk El Mechri, Frédéric Bénudis, Christophe Turpin
Directed by: Mabrouk El Mechri
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violence
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 96
Date: 06/04/2008

JCVD (2008)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Scarred Target

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, JCVD definitely echoes Being John Malkovich (1999) in that action star Jean-Claude Van Damme appears as a version of himself. But it also has the feel of a Jean-Luc Godard essay on the nature of cinema (or perhaps more closely resembling something like Irma Vep). But whether it's ironic or funny or deeply intelligent, JCVD may actually be one of my favorite movies this year. (I admit to being a part-time, "ironic" Van Damme fan, although I genuinely like Hard Target.)

Van Damme stars as "Jean-Claude," a worn-out action star who suffers through his latest movie under a petulant young director who insists in filming a long fight/rescue scene all in one take. At the same time, Jean-Claude is tormented by the loss of his daughter; his ex-wife has been awarded custody. Broke, Jean-Claude returns to Brussels, where he hopes to pick up a cash advance in the post office, but instead winds up in the middle of a hold-up. Worse, the cops think Jean-Claude is the criminal mastermind.

But plot isn't really the main point of JCVD. Instead, the movie wishes to ask several questions: is Jean-Claude really an action hero? Can he save the day? But, moreover, who is he? The lady cab driver tells a story about how rude he was on the way to town from the airport, but when we see a flashback, there's a different story. Why would she make up such a thing? To be a ten-minute celebrity herself?

JCVD incorporates certain biographical details, such as Van Damme's battle with drugs, the fact that he actually has a daughter, that he brought John Woo to America and that he likes to speak little martial arts aphorisms. At one point, in the middle of the showdown with the robbers, Jean-Claude's chair elevates up past the post office and into the ceiling of the movie set, with lights and wires in the background. There, he delivers an impassioned, poetic and eerily fragmented speech about what it's like to be Jean-Claude. But the truth is that JCVD is still a movie, and like last year's masterpiece I'm Not There, it understands that, as close as we can possibly get with creative filmmaking, we can never really know the guy.

This movie's greatest trick is that it's a highbrow treatment of a lowbrow subject (plus, the movie is spoken almost entirely in French), which is always good for a blast of irony. El Mechri shoots in a kind of metallic gray, which deliberately undercuts the plain, clean look of Van Damme's action films, but also invokes violence and hopelessness. He pulls off a neat trick toward the end, playing on Van Damme's status as a hero, but also calling attention to the film itself.

Regardless of how anyone takes it, JCVD will definitely throw a new light on Van Damme as a celebrity; he seems like less of a joke now. In the movie, he appears tired and sad and frustrated, which makes him less a cartoon and more like a guy you'd like to share a beer with (he's more of a movie star). It may even cause a cult revival of old Van Damme films.

JCVD opens today in New York and expands next week into San Francisco. Ironically, according to a recent report, Van Damme skipped out on interviews with the press so that he could stay home and nurse a sick puppy!

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