JCVD 2008 ★★★★

Coming out the same year as Stallone’s return to Rambo it would be easy to think that JCVD was Jean-Claude Van Damme returning to his roots with an all-action, martial arts fest that cranks up the gore to reach out to new audiences. The shock starts when you realise this is a European film and as it unfolds you discover that JCVD is not only Van Damme’s best performance of his life but a funny, smart and quite touching film.

The plot involves Van Damme playing a version of himself returning to his home town and getting caught up in a Post Office robbery; although how much of the JCVD character is real and caricature is impossible to tell without a biographer to enlighten you. The partially psychotic and partially star stuck robbers use Van Damme’s status to fool people into thinking that he is the perpetrator and to get them what they want. With the police outside and the robbers inside it plays to all the Hollywood action clichés but constantly throws curveballs at the viewer. It is a meta-film which constantly plays with any expectations you may have. Its statement is made by taking this ex-superstar, breaking him down and putting him back together through an extraordinary situation. The highpoint, in more ways than one, is a six minute, unbroken monologue delivered by Van Damme after being risen into the lighting rig of the film set. It is easily the best we have ever seen Van Damme and the scene sits on a difficult and rarely trodden line between the hilarious and the heartbreaking.

In fact, for much of the film you do find yourself struggling to decide if what you are seeing is funny or tragic. Writer and director Mabrouk El Mechri is not only aware of this but obviously enjoys sending his audience down this line. How you respond will more than likely depend on how you see Van Damme and what you think his purpose for doing this film was. Either it is a statement on fame, the movie industry and the public, a failed experiment in being “serious” or a huge practical joke.

Mechri presents the film with a washed and burnt out colour palette and from the first frame you get this feeling that the action sequence you are seeing isn’t all it’s set up to be. As it continues and the film becomes more self-referential Mechri is smart enough to make it visually interesting without letting that become a crutch.

JCVD is a strange beast of a movie but it is interesting and worth a watch because at the very least it will change the way you see Van Damme. However, chances are you will get more from this film than that and find yourself admiring the star for more than an action sequence and physical flexibility.

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