Jean Claude in an alternate reality is a down-on-his luck actor who returns to Brussels only to be mixed up in a bank heist and forced to take stock of his life.
Seeing the trailer for this, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of YouTube spoof, or something made by The Onion – one of those fake trailers with no corresponding movie. Could there really be a film in which video superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme, aka ‘The Muscles from Brussels’, holds up a Belgian bank? Incredibly, there could – but JCVD is no spoof.
Instead, it’s an immensely watchable post-modern thriller, in which the martial artist formerly known as Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Varenberg, down on his luck after losing a part to Steven Seagal (“He cut off his pony tail,” his agent grimly explains), returns to Brussels to spend time with his estranged family, only to become embroiled in a bank heist which may end more than his career.
Holed up with hostages and bank robbers, and surrounded by armed police, slathering reporters and mystified fans, 48-year-old Van Damme realises he’ll need more than his considerable karate skills to get out alive. So far, so bizarre; but then, an hour into the film, the action pauses, as Van Damme breaks the ‘fourth wall’ to deliver an emotional, single-take soliloqy, an appeal-cum-confession, either to the audience or to God, in which he reflects at length on the highs and lows of his twenty-year career, drug problems, complicated love life (he divorced his third wife, Gladys, in 1992, had a child with his fourth wife, divorced her, then remarried Gladys in 1999) and place in the world. It’s a coup de cinema, invoking the spirits of Fellini, Truffaut and Godard – no, seriously – which, like the rest of the film, shows two sides of Van Damme few have seen before: the human being, and the skilled actor.
Cynics may doubt the film’s sincerity, detecting the whiff of a fallen star’s vanity project, despite a darkly funny, partly improvised script which doesn’t always show him in the best light. But there’s no mistaking the gusto with which director/co-screenwriter Mabrouk El Mechri shoots the siege, imaginatively photographed by the brilliantly-named Pierre-Yves Bastard. Ultimately, what could have been a direct-to-video curiosity becomes a highly unusual and strangely compelling collision of Being John Malkovich and Dog Day Afternoon.
Seems like a spoof at first glance but this proves to be a compelling Post-modern thriller with gumption.