In a Van Damme movie, if he's held up at a post office by 3 gun-totting man, we can probably bet than he can floor them all with deadly force within 3 minutes, save all hostages and swagger out with a girl in tow for romancing later on. But in real life, or at least a film that's set in this alternative reality that cut quite close to home, things aren't always that easy, especially when he's in his forties and admits early on that he has to pant his way through any film set with an action scene that requires one continuous take.
JCVD is, well in case you're now aware, made up of the initials of the has-been action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme, hero from films like Blood Sport and Universal Soldier, and as he's associated in this movie, the man credited for introducing John Woo to Hollywood as they made Hard Target. Things aren't all that rosy for a man who is well past his action hey-days, with roles not forthcoming, and having to enter into a prolonged child custody battle. Hollywood's action heroes of yesteryears have been fading from the limelight, and it's no wonder that some are finding second life through direct-to-video films, and in JCVD's experience here, he's not gaining any respect from new filmmaker hacks who couldn't care less about his glorious past.
What makes this film intriguing is to witness how ordinary Van Damme is, being just another regular joe who faces problems that aren't as far fetched as saving the world singlehandedly, and juggling his visibility with fan boys when in public, and can't actually step up to be that hero he's idolized for. The Van Damme here gets caught up in an armed robbery in a post office, and contrary to what we would assume he would do, he has to play ball, listen to instructions, and just about making sure that he himself also survives the ordeal.
But of course when one of the robbers happen to be a fan, then this allows for some comedy especially in a scene where he requests his action hero to demonstrate some of his famed moves, which in my opinion, shows that Jean Claude still has what it takes. The other action sequence that will impress will be the one in the beginning, which packs everything from gunfights to fisticuffs, and is just about the time that you'll experience much action in the film, bar delusional moments of "What If"s that Van Damme dreams up, which adds to the fun and plays on his action hero persona.
Which gets shelved aside for JCVD the man, even though this reality is an alternative one. In a brilliant scene, which I felt was the highlight and defining moment of the film, Van Damme breaks the 4th wall and communicates directly to us the audience, as if he's having a confessional to god. He recounts the life that he has, the child who carved out a career by following his dreams, of never say die, and of adopting the right attitude. He covers in earnestness the ups and downs of his life, his success and failures, and frankly, if the Muscles from Brussels had bragged at one point that amongst the Hollywood action heroes he had the most credible acting skills, then this dramatic moment is that justified, with JCVD exhibiting plenty of genuine emotion.
Presented in a non linear narrative with view points changing from the likes of the cab driver, to the video store guys, to the cops and of course from JCVD's own, director Mabrouk El Mechri managed to build up suspense and allow us to wonder just what and how things are related with one another, with the crux of the story taking place in and around a single location isolated by the police from curious passers by and fans of Van Damme. It balances drama and some bits of comedy, while holding out on the limited action scenes to make you wonder just when will Van Damme execute those killer splits and hits.
The last film I saw on the big screen involving Van Damme was the latest Universal Soldier sequel, and it's a bit of a pity he's not involved with The Expendables, which had brought together action heroes both old and new in a single film that's likely to settle for that tinge of nostalgia. For JCVD fans, this film is a must-watch, while non-fans will likely agree that he's more or less vindicated from some of the relatively unsuccessful turns in those made for video market movies. Highly recommended!