Sunday, April 5, 2009
It’s tough out there for an action star, isn’t it? Things used to be you could just pop off a quick ass-kicking adventure every year and make a decent living at it, but Hollywood seems to have cut back on these modest little genre pictures in recent years—too narrow a demographic appeal, I imagine, and just not enough return on investment. But suffer the Van Dammes and Seagals, the Lundgrens and Stallones? Where are the muscle-bound lunkheads of yesteryear?
Well, if this film is any indication, they’re out there somewhere being subjected to the humiliations of a steadily diminishing fame. JCVD features Jean-Claude Van Damme playing a fictionalized version of himself who must sit through a child custody case in which his films are used as evidence against him. Even worse, after going to the post office to pick up a money transfer (his bank account is frozen), he stumbles onto a hostage drama. To the outside world, it appears that Van Damme is responsible for the hostage taking, a confusion that the real robbers readily exploit. The incident becomes a media circus, with Van Damme’s fans on the street cheering on their hero and his parents begging their son to release the hostages.
This all sounds better in concept than it actually is, but the film still manages to offer some amusing—if not particularly profound—insights into fame. For instance, there is a running gag about how everyone prefers Van Damme in his films than in real life (people comment on how short he is, and a garrulous cab driver declares him to be nicer in his movies). The joke even extends to other people—outside the hostage taking, someone observes that a local reporter is much better looking on television. The simple fact of appearing on a television or movie screen instantly elevates our perception of a person.
The film never really pursues these ideas very far, nor any of its other ideas for that matter. The media circus around the hostage taking suggests the possibility of an antic farce on celebrity and hero worship—there’s a nice, mild surrealism to lines of dialogue like, “Jean-Claude Van Damme’s robbing the post office! I need back-up!”—but this potential goes untapped due to the underdeveloped supporting characters and tepid resolution of the hostage crisis. The sad-sack life of Van Damme suggests a more ruminative drama about the disillusionment of fame and celebrity as a trap (either as hostage or in prison, Van Damme spends much of the film confined and cut off from the world); unfortunately, the film’s combination of deprecating humour and flattery caters to Van Damme’s self-pity instead of providing genuine insight into his persona.
Van Damme still deserves to be recognized for a rather engaging performance, which feels looser and more relaxed than one might expect. At the same time, I have trouble accepting the centerpiece of Van Damme’s performance—a teary, one-take monologue in which he defends himself against undefined detractors while trying to appear sympathetically vulnerable. It’s perhaps the closest the film comes to some sort of emotional honesty with its protagonist, which makes the calculating performance that much more unfortunate. You can see the contrivance behind each motion and expression—he underlines every emotion in a way that is almost academic, as if he were pulling all of this from a textbook somewhere. Yes, it’s impressive that Van Damme can actually act, but how much more impressive would it be if he didn’t have to call so much attention to it? The scene occurs outside the world of the narrative in a film studio with cameras and equipment behind Van Damme—the setting broadcasts the moment’s supposed reality, but the man’s every studied twitch suggests otherwise.
Is the film mocking Van Damme here? Or merely indulging him? The cheeky score often plays like a parody of action film music, making it difficult to take serious when mournful strings play behind Van Damme’s supposedly soul-bearing monologue. If the whole thing is a joke, then why not this as well? Director Mabrouk El Mechri seems to vacillate between mocking and worshipping his subject, and this confusion means the film never really amounts to more than a few funny scenes and an intriguing premise. And none of this is helped by El Mechri’s relentless hyper-stylization of everything, which distracts without actually adding anything to our perception of events. The most you could say for the director’s use of sepia tones, for example, is that it suggests nostalgia for a bygone era of action heroes. But given the film’s immense self-regard, it is more likely just nostalgia for itself—a fond reminiscence of its own cleverness, long since faded.