Wednesday, May 13, 2009

FILM REVIEW OF ''JCVD'' (2008-French)

Martial arts action sensation Jean-Claude Van Damme acts more often than he kick-boxes in French-Algerian writer & director Mabrouk El Mechri's "JCVD," (*** out of ****) an unusual hybrid film with autobiographical, post-modernist, satiric elements entwined with a tense hostage-robbery saga that resembles nothing the 'Muscles from Brussels' has ever done. Indeed, Jean-Claude breaks the fourth wall about two-thirds of the way into this change-of-pace thriller and delivers a soulful six-minute soliloquy about his tortured life as a celebrity that qualifies as the most mind-blowing scene in his entire career. Van Damme recounts the peaks and valleys of his twenty-year career, his bouts with narcotics, and his bouts with his wives. For example, in 1992, Van Damme divorced his third wife, Gladys, had a son with his fourth wife, broke up with her, and then went back to Gladys in 1999. Of course, Van Damme improvised most of this scene in a single take, but he appears startlingly candid.

El Mechri doesn't always succeed with this off-beat effort. This surreal "Rashomon" meets Sidney Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon" by way of "Being John Malkovich" is an artsy-fartsy exercise in filming. Nevertheless, you've got to give the guy credit for creating one of Jean Claude's more ironic movies. Long-time, dyed-in-the-wool Van Damme fans will no doubt disdain "JCVD" as a puzzling potboiler with a weird twist of an ending. Non-Van Damme audiences, however, will herald it as a revelation. Since it is so unlike anything that the Belgiam leading man has ever done, the question is what was he thinking when he decided to veer off course with this unconventional entry? If Van Damme returns to his usual rigorous action fodder—some of which is incredibly good—"Double Team," "Hard Target," and "Sudden Death," "JCVD" will be the exception to his oeuvre. Some moments are simply staggering in their depth, while other moments misfire.

Initially, "JCVD" sounds like a vanity project. Nevertheless, Jean Claude not only pokes fun at himself, but he also diverges from the predictable antics of his typical actioneers. "JCVD" bristles with surprises and doesn't even look like his usual stuff. The widescreen cinematography has been muted and bleached so that it looks like a bleached black and white television program which enhances the film's
surrealistic quality. The Belgium kick boxer plays himself, and in real life his actual name is Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Varenberg. There is nothing vain about the Jean Claude Van Damme that shows up in this 103-minute, R-rated saga. Recovering from an ugly custody battle with his wife over his daughter (newcomer Saskia Flanders), Jean-Claude returns to Belgium, filled with melancholy, jet-lagged out by a long flight, and broke to boot! His credit cards don't work and he isn't
looking forward to his next movie. In fact, he learns that Steve Seagal—in one of "JCVD"'s running jokes—has taken the role away from him because he has agreed to cut off his ponytail. The cabbie that drives him from the airport is a big fan, but she gets to see the wrong side of Jean-Claude and waxes critical about his arrogance.

Jean-Claude gets her to pull up across the street from a post office where he hopes
to obtain money from a wire transfer. Before he has gotten ten steps from the cab, two fans summon him and snap digital photos of him. A cop arrives and tells the cabbie that she cannot park there and the two video store geeks who have taken pictures with the kick-boxing star show them off to the cop. Meanwhile, our brawny hero stumbles into a robbery that turns into a hostage crisis. A local cop tries to thwart this crime and spots Jean-Claude inside the post office bank. He leaps to the wrong conclusion. He assumes Jean-Claude is holding up the post office. A major weakness here is that the bank robbers don't make much of an impression. They're tough and they are armed, but none of them is psychotic enough to make the hackles rise on your back. In other words, they pose a threat, but they aren't evil incarnate. Eventually, the authorities swarm to the scene and erect barriers.

Meanwhile, inside the post office/bank, three desperate gunmen rant and rave about the sudden turn of events. No, Jean-Claude doesn't pull any of his traditional stunts. He worries about dying. The robbers use him as an intermediary to talk with the police. The outcome to this suspenseful story clashes with the traditional Van Damme blockbuster. In fact, the filmmakers furnish two endings and go with the most downbeat of the two. Again, if you're a hardcore Van Damme aficionado, prepare for the worst. The ending is something that you will never suspect. The single-take opening sequence where our hero performs his standard stunts as he battles his way through an army of assailants starts out looking straightforward enough but things subtly change along the way. Later, during the custody case, the attorney for his wife riddles Van Damme's career by skewering the violent movies that he makes. This scene is absolutely hilarious and the self-deprecating Van Damme shows a different facet to his personality. "JCVD" casts Jean-Claude Van Damme as he has never been cast before--warts and all.