What is surely the world’s first major meta-martial arts movie opens with a bravura tracking shot that forces Jean-Claude Van Damme, portrayed by Jean-Claude Van Damme, to kick, punch and jab his way through dozens of anonymous opponents to the sounds of some vintage Curtis Mayfield soul. The sequence just goes on and on, rather hilariously, until Van Damme begins to run out of steam, he misses a mark, and the whole thing literally collapses. “I’m 47!” he protests with affecting vulnerability to the frustrated crew. “Just because he brought John Woo to Hollywood doesn’t mean he can rub my dick with sandpaper,” the rather unforgiving punk of a director mumbles to his AD. A sort of companion piece to The Wrestler, but way goofier, JCVD gives us a fading action star waxing reflective on his own anxieties over struggling to keep up with the action.
Reeling from divorce and child custody suits, amassing vast debt, tiring, both physically and spiritually, of headlining an endless string of actioners that are virtual remakes of the same thing over and over, the muscle from Brussels returns home to lick his wounds and settle some business. But life will soon imitate art, and weirdly. It starts, aptly enough, in a sleepy video club that will soon be crammed with cops, some of whom wear only their underpants. They’re responding to one of the most memorable radioed-in cries for help in recent memory: “Please. Hurry. Jean-Claude Van Damme is robbing a post office!”
It appears Van Damme’s gone postal, though the truth is more complicated, involving hostages, many layers of theatre, meditations on the social duties of celebrities, a really bad and quite annoying bad guy with John Cazale’s haircut from Dog Day Afternoon, and a humiliating courtroom scene where a prosecuting attorney slaps down DVDs and rattles off the countless ways Van Damme has meted out death upon fictive victims for the last two decades. As helmed by Mabrouk El Mechri, JCVD is pitched somewhere between Jean-Luc Godard, Charlie Kaufman, a midnight movie and a cartoon. He bathes the whole thing in this bizarre, ugly, sort of bronzing ethereal haze that’s perhaps meant to resemble what the world looks like after 18 consecutive hours in a tanning bed. Like the enjoyably throwback score, the Dutch angles, or the long takes which frequently fix solely on Van Damme’s face even during a conversation, it’s one of many choices that render JCVD stylishly stoned and indiscriminate. But it’s never less than watchable and utterly diverting.
What grounds all this at all is obviously Van Damme himself, who seems to be genuinely laying his heart bare, slumped in chairs complaining about shit scripts, signing autographs and posing for pics, doing a few high kicks, and flipping out when he can’t make a simply bank transaction. The movie’s key scene has Van Damme drift out of the action altogether for a few minutes, floating up to the ceiling like the hero of Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist, delivering this rambling, semi-coherent, Brando-esque monologue about fame, drugs, women and whatever else haunts the tired mind of a Belgian kickboxing movie star. In some parallel universe it just won him the Oscar.