The film's central joke is that while Van Damme can't seem to land any onscreen roles, as soon as he returns home to take some time off, he's thrust, quite unwittingly, into the part of a lifetime. Seizing on the actor's popularity - he's something of a folk hero in his hometown - the robbers cast him as their lead; the police having mistaken the action star for the perp, the crooks force him at gunpoint to continue the charade, articulating their demands to the cops over the phone. In one of the film's more inspired bits, Van Damme draws on a lifetime of B-movie knowledge to help orchestrate the negotiations - recalling a conceit from an early role, he suggests that the cops strip down to their underwear before approaching the bank so that the robbers can be sure they're unarmed. As in any meta-movie, film informs reality as much as the reverse.
But J.C.V.D.'s captors have him completely miscast; as everyone knows, he always plays the hero. Except, perhaps, in this film. In the picture's celebrated centerpiece, Van Damme steps out of character - or rather "Jean-Claude" becomes Jean-Claude - and delivers an unbroken monologue reflecting on his life's successes and (mostly) failures - touching on his early days as a scrawny, penniless kid, his drug use, the cruelty of the movie industry - and finally dissolving into tears as he wonders, "What have I done on this earth? Nothing." As uncompelling a figure as Van Damme has been throughout the film - and El Mechri's chief miscalculation is to build an entire movie around such a flat "character" - his monologue is curiously affecting, getting at the reservoir of self-doubt beneath the confident movie star exterior - even as it seems something out of an entirely different picture.
Van Damme's heroic image largely undercut throughout the film, in the end he can only imagine his customary triumph: a moment of crowd-pleasing ass-kicking that rewinds to reveal that it was all in the actor's head. Instead our hero winds up in jail, and on the undignified charge of extortion to boot. All told, El Mechri's hit on an interesting conceit with JCVD - and no doubt it's a real fillip for the film's underutilized star - but told as it is through a drab heist narrative, spiced with perfunctory, if occasionally amusing, bits of reflexive observation and filmed in an ugly near-monochrome palette, the execution falls far short of the considerable promise.
Sony's Budd Boetticher box set seems likely to be the DVD release of the year. Collecting five of the seven films the director made with Randolph Scott (Seven Men From Now is already available on DVD from Paramount and Westbound is by all accounts negligible), the set rescues these works (all previously unavailable on region-1 DVD) from the stuff of semi-legend and restores them to their proper place alongside the other great works of the late-western (Man of the West, The Searchers, Rio Bravo). What strikes me about the films in the set - and I haven't made my way through all five just yet - apart, of course, from their stunning location shooting and deftly staged action sequences, is their concern with rethinking the norms of social organization. From The Tall T's obsession with testing out different arrangements of domesticity (a topic I've written about here) to Decision at Sundown's unmasking of patriarchal notions of female sexuality, these films are, if nobody's idea of radical critiques, at least fascinating in their ambiguous relation to the traditional assumptions of the western. Well worth checking out.