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March 19, 2009


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Mabrouk El Mechri - 2008
Musictronic Entertainment Region 3 DVD

If JCVD has done nothing else, it has proved how much good will Jean-Claude Van Damme has created, often in spite of, rather than because of his movies. This would be apparent from the critical acclamation given to this unexpected cult film. Playing at film festivals, and sneaking in and out of art houses doesn't exactly scream a return to the glory days of Universal Soldier. Why I think JVCD has created interest has to do with its look at the meaning of celebrity.

Van Damme portrays a fictionalized version of himself, returning to Brussels to take care of personal matters. Stepping out of a cab, two local men persuade Van Damme to pose for photos before he goes to a nearby bank to do some business. While the two men, a female cab driver, and a patrolling policeman discuss the presence of Van Damme in the town they describe as a "shit hole", shots are fired from the bank, shattering one of the taxi's windows. Seen briefly behind the bank window, it becomes clear that a bank robbery is in progress, and that Van Damme is involved.

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JCVD plays upon the expectations people have about celebrity, wanting the star to be both a "regular person" and simultaneously someone to be revered for their fame. At the same time, the character of Jean-Claude Van Damme finds himself in a situation where he cannot act like an action star in the film's version of real life. Still, Van Damme is asked to demonstrate one of his high kicks for one of the robbers, and gives advice from past films on how to negotiate with the police.

What I liked best was a scene, a monologue may well have been improvised. At one point inside the bank, Van Damme is literally lifted out of the scene to address the audience with a look back on his life. There is enough to suggest that without giving away specific details, Van Damme is reflecting on a life pretty close to his own.

One of the film's running jokes is about Van Damme giving John Woo his first Hollywood directing job. That Van Damme brought three top Hong Kong directors to Hollywood during a time of uncertainty in their own country is worthy of consideration. There is one scene of Van Damme making a film with a Chinese director that highlights the actors frustration with what he can do, and how a scene should be filmed, and the director's own indifference to the project. Again, JCVD plays with the notion of expectations between the real Jean-Claude Van Damme and his fictionalized screen character of the same name.

Whether JCVD will allow Jean-Claude Van Damme to get roles independent of his martial arts abilities has yet to be seen. Even if JCVD turns out to be an anomaly in a career of action films that continues, it may be enough for the moments of seeing a star famed for his grace in motion, showing a sense of grace about his life and career.

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JCVD is available from HK Flix, where films are Bigger than Life.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 19, 2009 12:11 AM