Van Damme at his ass-kicking best. WARNING: Casualties may include terrorists, robbers, and the fourth wall.
Caught in the nexus between a fictional, flawless, idealised dream of himself, and the rough, raw, rugged reality of his actual life and his actual surroundings, Jean-Claude Van Damme is pushed to the limit in the performance of a lifetime.
The film not only deals with Van Damme's conflicted perception of himself, but also the perception that his fans have of him. A combination of admiration and loathing that is a recurring paradoxical sentiment in both himself and his fans who constantly feed off each other to create a mutated idea of a man known as 'J.C.V.D.' Indeed, this is an idea re-iterated in the style of the film, itself breaking the fourth wall in that it is about the very actor who is playing himself onscreen, not to mention a lengthy soliloquy at the end of the second act in which Van Damme turns to the audience and pours his heart out in what ranks as one of the single most arresting experiences of my filmgoing life.
The story starts with Van Damme in his late 40s struggling to keep abreast as an action star for low budget B-movies while fighting for custody of his daughter in court. Van Damme becomes embroiled in a hostage situation in which he himself appears to be the hostage taker demanding money to pay for his court fees. Like much of the film, this is an amusing reversal on how we generally perceive Van Damme as the square-jawed hero. The first act is a phenomenal exercise in narrative, suspense and efficiency. The second act is equally compelling in not only twisting the narrative, but also providing deeper insights into Van Damme struggling to be the stoic hero despite the reality of his environs and his all-too-human shortcomings. And the third act climaxes with one of the biggest fist-pumping moments I've ever had watching a movie.
The nature of the film forces one to revisit Van Damme's filmography as a matter of necessity. My favourites include: Kickboxer (DiSalle, 1989), which is a great revenge story with a killer climax; Universal Soldier (Emmerich, 1992), a Terminator-esque sci-fi action adventure film in which Van Damme plays a dead Vietnam soldier resurrected as a super soldier for a secret government program - the film is basically a massive metaphor for Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, and Van Damme's character represents their struggle to let go of the past and build a new future with whatever time they have left; and Timecop (Hyams, 1994), which is a smart and slick sci-fi flick about a man whose job it is to enforce time travel for the U.S. government. Other significant mentions include A.W.O.L., which shows Van Damme as a French Legionnaire who abandons his military brethren to rush to the aid of his real and dying brother in the United States.
Upon reviewing these films and J.C.V.D. it becomes clear very quickly that Van Damme's most compelling characters are generally the quiet, introverted, sensitive hero types. Indeed, if there's one thing Van Damme has that other classic action starts like Arnold Schwarzenegger lack, it's sensitivity. Unfortunately, where Van Damme begins to flag is when he encroaches into Arnie territory, attempting to be the witty warrior with a one-liner on standby for those times when bad guys need to be dispatched with style (hey, we've all been there). And so it would make sense for Van Damme to stick to this niche. And hey, it's not a bad niche. If anything, it will allow him to further explore the intense thespian aspect of his persona, and if J.C.V.D. is anything to go by, we can hope to expect some grand stuff from him further in the future.