Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD is one of the best films Jean-Claude Van Damme has starred in for some years, equal to his more recent efforts in Wake of Death and Replicant. Van Damme really puts on his acting cap in all three films, though out of the three, Replicant is still the best, followed by JCVD and then Wake of Death. JCVD, however, is the most inventive of the trio; it is also the first film where Van Damme gets real with his audience.
JCVD is a film about Jean-Claude Van Damme’s life, his tax issues, his child-custody battles, his past bout with drug addiction, and the current state of his film career. The viewer is shown fragments of his most embarrassing moments with no manipulation. In fact, viewers will likely be embarrassed while watching some of these scenes, whether or not they had previous knowledge of them.
Since Van Damme had a hand in the creative process, it turns out he is a braver actor and person than most of his films have led the public at large to believe. Nothing is left off the table, including idiotic past utterances he made on television. Never before has an actor provided such insight into the person behind his own action persona.
The framework for JCVD consists of Van Damme’s needing a quick influx of cash and visiting a bank that is subsequently held up. Most of JCVD happens during the robbery, as what happens in the bank is brought to the attention of the local authorities in Brussels, where Van Damme is a sort of folk hero. Belgians admire and look up to him even though the majority of his films these days are straight-to-video releases. He is theirs, one of them; a countryman who made it all the way to Hollywood.
Throughout JCVD, we’re offered fragments of what occurs in the bank in a nonlinear narrative form; answers, for instance, are provided before we even know which questions to ask. Who is robbing the bank is the subject of much humor, as arguments laced with levity break out about the bank situation and how to get out of it. (One setting in particular will make adult-film aficionados smile.)
Both in and outside the bank, Van Damme often has the chance to behave like an action star in the real world, a place where the hero is neither invincible nor always quicker and smarter than his opponent. In a few scenes, Van Damme sees what he would do if the robbery were taking place in one of his action films, while the viewer then witnesses what he chooses to do.
Though that is one of the best sequences in JCVD, its most memorable – and bravest – moment is a six-minute scene where Van Damme breaks the fourth wall, looking at and talking directly to the viewer (much as George Lazenby does briefly in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). That’s when Van Damme lets much of his internal pain come out in the open. Viewers that pay close attention to this monologue will notice something later referenced from it during the remainder of the film.
In sum, El Mechri’s JCVD is fearless in its depiction of Jean-Claude Van Damme both in front of and behind the camera. Chances are the viewer will most likely (even if involuntarily) grow to respect Van Damme – or at least understand him a few degrees better after watching this film.
© Reginald Williams.
JCVD (2008). Director: Mabrouk El Mechri. Screenplay: Mabrouk El Mechri and Frédéric Benudis; from an idea by Frédéric Taddeï and Vincent Ravalec. Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens, Liliane Becker.