When I think about guys who have comeback potential, I think Harrison Ford or Kevin Costner. I'd never even considered that Jean-Claude Van Damme was capable of such a designation, but here is JCVD, a self-satirical crime drama-thriller that defies genre and is actually pretty good. Yes, a pretty good Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. When was the last time you could say that?
In JCVD, Van Damme plays himself (at least to some degree), a washed up action star whose career has sunk to direct-to-DVD releases where he competes for roles with Steven Segal. He's stuck in a bitter custody battle for his daughter and has agreed to do a movie he doesn't want to do to pay off court costs. When he goes to the bank to collect the money, however, he finds himself at the mercy of some ruthless bank robbers. With all of the hostages expecting him to save the day and the police assuming he is in fact the instigator, Van Damme finds his celebrity status at an all-time high - he just has to survive the day.
JCVD is written and directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, and this man has managed to get more out of Van Damme than half of his movies combined. Apparently, most of Van Damme's lines weren't scripted so as to get the most out of the man, and the decision to do that was a wise one. While his performance is by no means an award-winning one, he shows he has range when given the right material. And now that he's a little older, his creased face helps us look past his reputation as a flat actor who does crappy, direct-to-video action movies. Bottom lines: Van Damme shows that he has some legitimate acting skills.
As far as the movie goes, JCVD is pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. It's a weird mix of genres, as it at once a character study, crime thriller and satirical comedy. Though the comedy takes a back seat, El Mechri has devised a film that pokes fun of Van Damme while embracing him at the same time, catering to his strengths and weaknesses simultaneously. He almost goes out of his way to prove that Van Damme is better than what most people think of him, giving him a several-minute monologue in the middle for the actor to profess his frustration with himself, his life and the world.
Unfortunately, JCVD doesn't shift from thriller to character study very well. It's not always clear what El Mechri is attempting to do with this film; if he's trying to make a legitimate crime thriller, he fails because it never climaxes in a fulfilling way, and if he's trying to make a legitimate drama, he splatters it with too much clutter. It's like two or three movies in one, and El Mechri never takes any of them to their potential.
Still, JCVD is a worthy film that frames Van Damme in a whole new light. He doesn't get to kick ass here (though we do get some fake action early on that is both quite impressive and hilarious at the same time), so it's hard to compare JCVD to his past work (I'm actually quite a fan of Timecop). Nevertheless, JCVD is one of Jean-Claude Van Damme's best movies, if not the best.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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