Mickey Rourke was not the only aging, musclebound icon of the 1980s to return to screen prominence in the waning months of 2008 with a soulful star turn as an aging, musclebound has-been. But where The Wrestler merely allegorized the True Hollywood travails of its leading man, JCVD purports to depict them. Sort of. In this stylish second feature from the young French director Mabrouk El Mechri, Jean-Claude van Damme — relegated to straight-to-video fare since 1999’s Universal Soldier: The Return — plays Jean-Claude van Damme, an out-of-work action star who stumbles into a hostage situation at a Belgian post office soon after returning home broke and on the brink of losing custody of his daughter in a California divorce court. Mistaking him for the perpetrator, the police begin negotiations with van Damme as a mob gathers on the street, chanting in absurdist support of their fallen hero. (“WHAT-IS-GO-ING-ON? WHAT-IS-GO-ING-ON?”) As a French art-house meditation on fame and pop-cult transience, JCVD can seem rather neo–New Wave slick, and more than bit lacking in ambition. El Mechri channels Godard, for sure, but only by way of Charlie Kaufman and Anglo-American reality television. Indeed, like the decidedly sub-nova white dwarves featured on Dancing with the Stars, it’s the hard-to-watch onscreen/offscreen pathos of JCVD‘s leading man that provides most of the film’s intertextual suspense. Happily, if a bravura six-minute, no-cut soliloquy near the end is any guide, van Damme is both fully in on the joke and, it turns out, a tragiccomic actor of remarkable cunning and Rourke-like physical reserve. Then again, upon the film’s release van Damme was quoted in a British tabloid hoping JCVD would help turn around a real-life custody row. “The only way I can bring my son back,” he told The Sun, “is to be successful again as they were saying to him, ‘Your father is a loser.’ ” The headiness of Van Damme’s performance suggests he was kidding; the heart makes you fear he was not.
About the Author
Jonathan Liu is a reviewer and journalist who has written for The New York Observer, Gawker.com, and The Harvard Book Review.