Friday, November 28, 2008
This Bull Can Rage: JCVD
There’s a lengthy, uncut scene in JCVD in which Jean-Claude Van Damme looks into the camera and delivers a stirring, sometimes tearful monologue that made me think of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. Oh, I won’t be so bold as to say that what Van Damme does here, playing a fictionalized version of himself, surpasses or even rivals what De Niro did as boxer Jake La Motta. But while it isn’t in the same neighborhood, it’s at least in the same county. It’s a performance that takes seeing to believe. And, even then, accepting what you’ve seen might not come naturally. Which is precisely what makes JCVD a magical, if modest, cinematic experience. Until now, Van Damme, the karate-chopping “Muscles from Brussels,” has been a punchline as often as he’s been a puncher. Here, he’s just a knockout.
It’s a clever bait-and-switch. Director Mabrouk El Mechri, who co-wrote the screenplay with Frederic Benudis and Christophe Turpin, has created a satire, heist flick and character examination rolled into one that toys with our preconceptions of the forgotten action star – sometimes satisfying them, other times defying them. That’s why it works. To consistently subvert our image of Van Damme would have meant shattering the pseudo-reality of the character while becoming as predictable as a crank call on April 1. Instead, JCVD gives us a recognizable personality who is deeper, more fragile and more talented than we expect, and yet one who is familiarly washed-up and still comically compared to fellow 1990s standout Steven Seagal, who is mentioned so often in this film that he should get an acting credit.
The story begins in Brussels. Van Damme returns to his native land after starring in yet another amateurish action flick that will be lucky to find an audience on DVD. Privately, the Universal Soldier star desires credibility, but even more he yearns for steady work. Anything to pay the bills. In Los Angeles, Van Damme is mired in a custody battle with one of his ex-wives. His cute blond-haired daughter doesn’t want to live with him because she gets teased at school in a town where it’s more disgraceful to be related to a Used To Be than to a Never Was. A decade removed from his last major commercial success, Van Damme is still competing for roles with Seagal, only the gigs don’t pay like before. His longtime lawyer threatens to drop the custody case if Van Damme can’t come up with some money immediately. But Van Damme’s pockets are empty. His ATM and credit cards won’t work. And so like a nobody he heads off to wait for a wire transfer, only to be harassed for photos and autographs along the way by people who remember when he was a somebody.
This is a man at the end of his rope. And so if this seems like it’s the easiest role Van Damme has ever played, keep in mind that it’s also the best. While the imminent potential of a Van Damme roundhouse kick infuses JCVD with some fanboy suspense, this is an actor’s film, not a martial arts expert’s. And that’s a departure. Up to now, Van Damme’s career has resembled that of an adult film star’s: It’s his physical prowess that’s landed him roles, not his acting chops. And so while in the past his earnest line readings between sequences of sweaty action have often made for unintentional comedy, it’s fair to ask: Was Van Damme entirely to blame? To put it in adult film terms: How much thought goes into writing the pizza-delivery scenes? (Nuff said. But, just in case, consider that in 1993’s Hard Target, Van Damme plays a mullet-wearing, bow-hunting Cajun named Chance Boudreaux who has an Uncle Douvee played by Wilford Brimley. I mean, really. Name an actor who could have pulled that off with his dignity intact.)
In this picture, Van Damme acts like a world-weary man who is too exhausted to put up a fight. One look into his hopeless eyes might leave you feeling sympathetic toward the character, and yet neither Van Damme the actor nor JCVD asks that we feel sorry for the real man. JCVD has a wry sense of humor about its star’s career and celebrity. Van Damme makes it clear that he knows we’ve been laughing at him at least as often as we’ve been laughing with him. He knows our expectations are nil. And if the guy truly lacked talent beyond his fists and feet, he’d blow this opportunity by overplaying every scene like Norma Desmond hungry for a close-up. But instead Van Damme exudes quiet confidence and poise, as if he’d come to Hollywood from the stage rather than the dojo. His hangdog expressions are so convincing that it would be easy to forget this is all an act. And yet in JCVD, Van Damme’s act is the show. The movie is propelled by an intriguing little plot involving a case of mistaken identity and a villain who looks like a cross between No Country For Old Men’s Anton Chigurh and Fredo Corleone circa The Godfather: Part II, but there’s no mistaking that its chief allure is the metamorphosis of Van Damme into an utterly captivating figure.
The only significant blunder then of JCVD is that it obscures Van Damme within a questionable visual treatment by cinematographer Pierre-Yves Bastard that leaves the actors over-lit and yet ill-defined. The bank interiors especially are almost two-toned – not black-and-white but light-and-dark. The technique succeeds in creating a dreamlike aesthetic that reinforces that this is a meditation on a fictionalized Van Damme and not a docudrama. But if Kodak sent you prints like this, you’d mail them right back. Still, it’s a small misstep for a film that is otherwise impressively assembled. The screenplay is structured so that bits of the action to unfold twice from alternate perspectives, but JCVD never overstays its welcome in any one scene. It’s entirely void of filler – as lean as Van Damme himself. And the whole 96-minute exercise is capped off by what I’m ready to call the best final shot in cinema this year – a sublime marriage of writing, staging and acting by Van Damme.
Of course, as much fun as the film provides, JCVD doesn’t do anything to elevate Van Damme’s previous performances. Nor is it conclusive evidence that Van Damme was capable of this kind of depth before, or that he’ll match this performance in the future. In the argument that the key to strong acting is strong writing, this is Exhibit A. And yet to imply that JCVD is nothing more than that would be unjust. There’s genuine talent on display here, and you don’t have to grade on a curve to call Van Damme’s performance what it is: terrific. Whether critics and art-house types can deign to be so praiseworthy remains to be seen. But long past the point in his career when Van Damme might have been able to demand respect, he has finally earned it. His self-portrayal isn’t better than De Niro’s best work, no. But it’s better than a lot of it. And there’s no shame in that.