Saturday, November 15, 2008


JCVD might resonate with the Van Damme faithful, but for the rest of us, it's just one more bit of (not so) clever self-referential filmmaking. In Mabrouk El Mechri's meta-fantasy, the Muscles From Brussels stars as himself, that is, a 47-year-old out-of-work actor fighting for the few roles still available to aging action stars with archrival Steven Seagal. Following an unsuccessful custody battle in Los Angeles (his fate sealed when his daughter informs the judge that she doesn't want to live with her father because her friends make fun of her whenever he's on TV), he returns to his native Belgium and, arriving at a bank to receive a much needed money transfer, stumbles into a robbery in progress.

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.


alex p said...

Did I ever tell you about the time I saw Van Damme at the Opera House in Prague? And his bodyguards blocked the bathroom door during intermission so he could be there by himself?
Anyway, I don't plan on going to see this film, although I have a good friend who is a big Van Damme fan whose taste in movies I otherwise tend to agree with.

alex p said...

I thought Seven Men from Now was fabulous. The other Boetticher I've seen is Comanche Territory. It was like a good sake.

andrew schenker said...

I don't think you told me about seeing Van Damme in Prague. His authority has probably waned considerably since then. Don't know that he could pull off that kind of stunt now. Incidentally, I was in Bulgaria when he was shooting a film there and just missed seeing him at the National History Museuem. I guess he didn't enjoy his time in that country too much since in JCVD he expresses displeasure at having had to shoot a film in Bulgaria, speaking the country's name with audible disgust. Would be curious to hear what your friend thinks of the picture if he goes to see it. There're a lot of in-jokes clearly aimed at the savvy Van Damme fan.