Part homage, part parody, and part surreal thought experiment, Mabrouk El Mechri's movie nimbly avoids categorization.
While Jean-Claude Van Damme sits in a courtroom, a lawyer makes the case against him. Not only is he saddled with "past problems" (so well known they needn't be mentioned here), but also, and apparently worse, his "entire career experience is with films whose values no responsible, aware parent would ever want to expose their children to." The camera cuts from the barrister, slapping down DVDs onto a table so they make a series of harsh thuds, to Van Damme, morose, bored, and nearly defeated.
The lawyer reels off the long list of offenses, that is, the ways the action star performs and delivers death on screen: "mangled under the wheels of a truck, strangulation, fracturing the skull, crushed ribs..." As if by reflex, Jean-Claude resists, briefly: "There are low budgets," he protests, "Every one of my movies were having heart!"
It's this last that provides a perverse point of departure for JCVD. Part homage, part parody, and part surreal thought experiment, Mabrouk El Mechri's movie nimbly avoids categorization, admitting and tweaking its most obvious label in its title. While it is indeed the latest low-budget action film starring Van Damme, it is also a meditation on precisely that sort of production, the branding of a star and a concept, the exploitation that drives every level of the movie industry but becomes overwhelmingly visible in this crudest of genres.
Playing a character based on himself, or more likely, the self that has appeared on countless tabloid and fan mag covers, Van Damme here invites that meditation in a most visceral way. The movie opens with an extended take as Jean-Claude rolls relentlessly -- kicking, jumping, punching, shooting, pounding, stabbing, running, twisting -- the camera tracking every grunting effort. His opponents are large and facelessly repetitive, each doomed to failure at the hands of our hero. As brutal and incessant as the action may be, it's hard not to marvel at Jean-Claude's peculiar beauty: he's aging, he's beat-down, and his body can't possibly deliver the accurate maneuvers on which he built his name. But still, he is possessed of an uncanny ability to extend and contort his physical form.
Aside from its focus on Jean-Claude, the scene reveals as well the process of creating him, the sets, the stunts, the squibs and faux explosions -- in this case one that doesn't go off. This ruins the shot, a point brought home when the film-within-the-film's camera stops and the story begins again, this time following a plainly exhausted Jean-Claude, thermal blanket pulled over his hunched shoulders, his face lined. He makes his way toward his hotshot director, an Asian kid slouched in a chair who ignores his pretty young translator and mocks his aging star: "He still thinks we're making Citizen Kane?"
Actually, no. Jean-Claude has no illusions, as the scene in the courtroom reveals. He's not pretending to salvage a career gone wrong or make excuses for what he's done or not done. He is, in JCVD's gesture toward the sentimental plotline that undergirds most action pictures, fighting a custody battle over little Gloria (Saskia Flanders), mostly silent and very soft-lit. she offers one short, heartbreaking line while on the witness stand, saying she'd rather live with her mother than Jean-Claude. "Every time my dad is on a TV show," she whimpers, "my friends make fun of me." Cut to Jean-Claude looking devastated in dramatically shadowed close-up.
Having set up Jean-Claude's dire straits, the movie then turns inside out, again. Looking for work, he returns to Brussels, from whence his muscles came. Maybe, he imagines, consumers and employers here will value him for who he is, unlike all those brutal bottom-line schemers in Hollywood. He doesn’t anticipate that his so-called life will turn into a so-called movie, but during his cab ride home. The film presents these events in fractured form, showing the start of a post office robbery from the outside: a couple of Jean-Claude fans hear gunshots from inside the building after they watch him walk toward it; a passing policeman investigates only to be shot at himself.
Within minutes, the streets outside the post office are filled with cops, reporters, and fans with placards ("We love you J-C!"). Heading up the assembled authorities -- uniformed and armed, SWAT guys waiting eagerly to attack -- is a familiar no-nonsense type, Commissioner Bruges (François Damiens) makes calls, fights with superiors, and tries to negotiate with the seeming mastermind Jean-Claude. No one knows quite what's going on, including you, as the film backtracks and starts again, showing earlier scenes from other perspectives, suggesting the tangle of reality and subjectivity that allows outrageous fictions and masculine performances to percolate and, indeed, turn profits.
When Jean-Claude's story picks up again -- differentiated from the public spectacle of J-C -- he appears again in isolating close-up, a spotlight on his chair as he regards his fellows. These include a group of cowering hostages (a mother with young son, a terrified postal clerk, et. al.) as well as a trio of robbers, variously skeevy. Having stumbled on this great unconcocted plan to use the celebrity to get the cops' attention, they turn to him for advice as to how to proceed -- what to demand, how to handle cop requests. Way too cleverly (the movie turning again), he suggests they don't go for "realistic" petitions -- not a million dollars, but something quirkier, more like what would happen in a movie. Skeptical but amateur and fighting among themselves, the criminals go along.
One bad guy in particular is enchanted by their hostage/frontman. When the post office is breached by a couple of cops (one posing as a doctor), Jean-Claude puts an end to thoughts of actual shooting by taking out the faux doctor with some choice martial arts moves. The actor's performance puts off the bloody mayhem that is sure to erupt eventually, and inspires the fanboy villain to extol his idol's many credits. He brought John Woo to Hollywood, the robber observes, "Without [Jean-Claude], he'd still be filming pigeons in Hong Kong!" And he's always outclassed his box office rival Steven Seagal, at least in this fan's mind.
In such moments, JCVD is an obvious meta-text, an informed dig at the industry's pathological and pathetic excesses, from sellers to buyers. But it's also a smart paean, lovingly detailed in its recreation of the genre -- from overstated score to acrobatic camerawork to manly melodrama. Sometimes loony and other times just too earnest, it's consistently strange and sad, object and subject, rather like its star.