On the face of it, these stars are just being themselves

Joseph V. Amodio
Newsday (MCT)

"Put him with the others," says a bank robber, as Jean-Claude Van Damme enters a bank and stumbles upon a heist-in-progress.

"Are you nuts?" asks another robber. "It's Jean-Claude Van Damme!"

Things get complicated from there in the self-referential action farce "JCVD," which stars JCVD as ... himself. Everyone in the film recognizes the aging kickboxing star, and the cops figure he's in on the crime.

He's certainly in on the joke - and he's not alone. Meta-movies have been popping up since this summer's comedy "Hamlet 2," starring Elisabeth Shue as Elisabeth Shue. Others include "What Just Happened?" with Sean Penn and Bruce Willis as Penn and Willis, respectively; and "My Name Is Bruce," with "Burn Notice" sidekick and cult horror film phenom Bruce Campbell as ... well, you get the idea.

These aren't just cameos played for laughs. Meta flicks - like 1999's "Being John Malkovich" - try for something meaningful. Granted, "Being" was essentially fake. The on-screen Malkovich hardly resembled the real one. Willis, too, in "What?," likely isn't as beard-obsessed as his cinematic doppelganger. And Campbell's not nearly that drunk and lecherous. Presumably.

The actor closest to revealing the truth is the action hero. It's "the truth from a past life," Van Damme admits. "It came from an itinerary of love and scars, a final stopping point of dreaming strongly."

If you think that's deep, wait'll you hear his mid-film monologue, when he rises above the set and reveals everything from his foibles (past drug abuse) to the curious nature of fame.

It's an odd, original moment in this moody suspenser where the "Muscles From Brussels" gets to, yes, act. Respectably, even.

Campbell, who not only played but directed himself in a film that lampoons his career, has a more sanguine take. "The difficult thing was directing myself because I kept asking myself so many questions," he quipped. "Eventually I stopped talking to myself."

His final tip seems only half in jest: If you play yourself in a movie, "make sure the director has a different name than you."

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