Published on August 18th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
JCVD took washed up action star Jean-Claude Van Damme and propped him up in a hilarious and sad film that has big heart to spare.
I was never really a fan of big action stars like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme; I have nothing against them, but I usually found their movies to be pretty disposable, way too far below the standards set by action movies like Die Hard or Raiders of the Lost Ark. And while many of these actors fell out of box office favour in the 90s, they have had somewhat of a resurgence with films like The Expendables series and recently, even some reality television programming. Last week I caught a few episodes of the well-meaning, but kind of boring and unfocused Jean-Claude Van Damme reality show, Jean-Claude Van Damme: Behind Closed Doors. And worse, I saw an episode of the Cops/Dog the Bounty Hunter wannabe program, Steven Seagal: Lawman. Oy, what a piece of shit that one is. They don’t do anything but drive around with as little urgency as possible while the random crackheads and white trash they encounter point out that OMG, he is Seagal. More like Steven Seagal: Blahman.
However, seeing these shows on television brought my wife and I to a conversation about JCVD, the 2008 film directed by Mabrouk el Mechri. She hadn’t seen it before, and I was due for a re-watch, so I dug through the media pile to put it on.
In JCVD, action star Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a meta version of himself, in which life is pretty rough. His agent tells him that Steven Seagal stole a movie he was up for, having promised to cut off his ponytail for the role. His daughter tells a judge in an LA custody trial that she doesn’t want to live with her Daddy, because her friends make fun of her when he comes on the TV. And his lawyer is about to drop his representation because the money is running out. The Muscles from Brussels returns to his childhood home in Belgium, where the people still love him, to lick his wounds. When he goes to the bank/post office to send money to his lawyer, he is swept up in a hostage situation, and very shortly, police and a swarming throng of fans surround the bank.
The film opens on an extended take of JCVD in an action film, showing his 47 years, but maintaining his professionalism, as he is attacked by gun-toting thugs from all directions. It starts out as a serious scene, but the cracks quickly show as it becomes apparent that they’re playing it for satirical purposes. Though he didn’t rate the movie as highly as I’d expect, Roger Ebert made the best observation of the subversive nature of the scene. “The computer-generated imagery is so evident and the fights so choreographed that it confirms something I’ve long believed: The most difficult thing an action star does during a battle scene is to hit his marks.” As a side note, as legend has it, Van Damme’s comment to the bored director about not wanting to film the scene in one take was his own ad lib, poking at Mabrouk El Mechri because he wanted to do the scene in one shot.
The washed-out look of the film matches the washed up nature of the protagonist’s life and career. And without giving too much away for anyone that hasn’t seen it, the structure of the film is playful and smart, perhaps owing a bit to Pulp Fiction (who in the quirky crime genre doesn’t owe a bit to Tarantino? Or at least, the films that Tarantino nabbed his ideas from). We start out with a highly impactful set up that launches us into the film and the hostage situation, then the story doubles back to show us Van Damme’s point of view, and how he got into the mess he’s in. They are able to mine the story for suspense at the start, followed by drama and comedy. Characters that were extras with speaking parts in the beginning end up having more impact, like the woman driving the cab that takes the action star to the bank.
The cab driver’s big scene is one of my favourite in the film. JCVD gets in her cab, jet-lagged and exhausted, broken in spirit from his court proceedings and career misgivings. She recognizes the star at once, and when he’s the slightest bit apprehensive about having a conversation, she launches into a tirade, chastising him for being such a big shot that has forgotten his roots. He has no choice but to sit back and take it. It’s a great piece of ad libbing (a good chunk of the script was ad libbed); Van Damme was instructed to be nice to the cab driver no matter what she said to him. He stares out the window at passing scenery and the camera sits on his fatigued face as he tries to be polite while she berates him — it solidifies the tragicomic tone of the film.
If we’re talking about great scenes, you can’t really chew the fat about this film without mentioning the chair soliloquy. In the middle of the movie, Jean-Claude sits in a chair among the hostages, and suddenly, the chair begins to rise, out of the set, out of the movie, breaking the fourth wall for him to address us personally in a six minute take. It’s a scene that could have very easily been ridiculous (and I’m sure it has its share of detractors), but I find it nothing short of spellbinding. It’s beautifully written and amazingly acted. As Ian Goodwillie said to me while we were talking about it this morning, “if it was anyone other than Jean-Claude Van Damme in that scene, it would have been an instant Oscar.”
It’s so painfully and incredibly self-aware; his William Shatner Free Enterprise moment times a hundred thousand. He lays himself completely bare, ruminating on the nature of show biz, his many wives, his former $10,000 a week, 10 gram a day cocaine habit, his secret inner insecurities about not being worth the fame he achieved, and the idea of starting all over again.
During shooting, Van Damme made Mabrouk El Mechri swear not to tell anyone about the content of the monologue, which they dubbed “The X Scene.” A curtain was set up to block the shy karate champion from anyone but the camera, and he wasn’t allowed to make eye contact with anyone before or during the scene. There was a red light next to the camera to indicate to him that the camera was running out of film, at which point, he could bring the plot back into focus by mentioning the bank situation, the cue for the crew to lower him back into the set.
A tear rolls down his cheek as he says, “So I really hope…nobody’s gonna pull a trigger in this post office. It’s so stupid to kill people. They’re so beautiful.” If you’re indeed buying into the movie, and the uplifted chair monologue, it’s pretty hard not to get choked up in that moment.
While it didn’t really translate into a full on career revitalization (I can hear Carl from The Simpsons saying, “This changes everything — I’d pay to see him in something now!”), JCVD showed the world that Van Damme had a heart, a sense of humour, and was repentant for how he’d lived parts of his life. While I’m sure some of his ex-wives may not be impressed with his soul flashing, it made for an excellent film that is by turns hilarious and sad.
There’s also a moment in the soliloquy where Van Damme talks about the fact that the ability to judge people is just not in him, but that it’s not in people to be able to stop judging him. And for me, that’s a huge piece of why this movie works, why it resonates with me. After the credits roll, we are caught asking ourselves, who would have thought that a washed up action star had this kind of depth to him? He’s right — we have judged him, and others like him, all along. And who hasn’t been made to feel small when others have judged us? Though he is a fallen superstar, suddenly I can identify with him, and empathize with him, which makes the laughter and the tears feel all the more real.