All of the Oscar hubbub surrounding Birdman got me thinking about JCVD, a movie built on a somewhat similar concept. You might superficially call this “a comeback movie”, if you think of Michael Keaton’s Birdman role in the same way most think of Mickey Rourke’s revitalization in The Wrestler. This might be the comeback of Jean-Claude Van Damme, action hero of the ’90s, star of movies with such vague titles that his name is printed in larger font on the posters, one-time king of both the roundhouse kick and the action flick box office.
But JCVD is set up like Birdman in another way, and after a certain point it’s not really a comeback film at all. The Muscles from Brussels stars as himself, or at the very least a tired and nearly washed-up version of himself, broke and embroiled in a custody battle for his young daughter. He’s still acting in the same films he’s always been acting in, but nowadays the passion seems sucked out of the entire process. The first long shot of JCVD follows Van Damme as he does an action sequence from his latest film, directed by a kid who doesn’t give a shit about Van Damme, and that opening shot tells two stories at once. It tells the story of the film-in-the-film, in which Van Damme’s hero saves a hostage from an army of faceless henchmen. But it also tells the actor’s story, Van Damme visibly going through the motions to get the film done instead of actually living through the thrill of the action. Every punch and jab and dive is perfect, exactly where it should be, and because of that it’s the most unexciting action sequence ever filmed.
Let’s pause for a moment to wrap our heads around the fact that Jean-Claude Van Damme can actually act. This is Timecop we’re talking about. The dude is quite literally in a category with Schwarzenegger, Seagal, and Sly. A video exists charting his top ten movie splits, and if the existence alone isn’t convincing enough then a minute or two of that video should do the trick:
But in JCVD Van Damme isn’t a cop on a personal vendetta, nor a cop on a time-traveling vendetta, nor a cop of any kind — he’s a haggard, downhearted, walking tragedy. He’s in pain, and believe it or not Van Damme manages to convey that pain beautifully. JCVD‘s director Mabrouk El Mechri lets his actor act, using long unbroken tracking shots (which probably contributed to the tenuous link to Birdman); but though that first long shot is of a Van Dammage-esque action scene, the rest are of the actor sitting in a chair, riding in a car, talking on the phone. The best part of the movie is a six-minute, single-take shot of Van Damme sitting in front of the camera and talking about his life. It’s strangely riveting, and I don’t expect the same scene from Sly would be anything but cringeworthy.
Jeffrey Chen at ReelTalk says it best: “For all we know, it’s just a big show, a put-on for our entertainment — but what matters is that it’s really quite convincing. You do want to believe this is Van Damme.” JCVD isn’t really about “coming back”, then, but actually more about moving away from the silver-screen version of a really jacked guy who happens to also have real-world problems. In one scene he crosses the street without looking, and the driver that screeches to a halt and leans on the horn then ends up apologizing: “Sorry man! Didn’t recognize you!” If it were anyone else crossing that street the tables would be turned, and Van Damme knows that.
Shortly after JCVD Van Damme went back to making one-off action flicks and sequels to Universal Soldier. It’s what he does, and the knowledge that the guy underneath all of those muscles can actually act makes that return to mindless action a bit bittersweet. But whatever the end result, JCVD is a pretty fascinating and rare move for an action star like Van Damme.