DVD Review: JCVD

Meet Jean-Claude Van Varenberg - better known as Jean-Claude Van Damme: martial artist and estranged father, an action man doomed to star in second-rate Hollywood action flicks for the rest of his dwindling career. On a sojourn to his native Belgium, Van Damme stops to pose for some photographs with the clerks of a small video store, and then goes into the local post office - desperate to transfer funds to the American lawyers fighting his custody battle. And then, out of nowhere, the post office erupts in gunfire. Is Jean-Claude Van Damme, as a shocked police officer reports, trying to rob a bank?

When actors play themselves in films, there are two obvious routes to go. The first, and least common route, is that of vanity. No actor wants to play themselves as a good guy, because that actually makes them look like, well, a bad guy. And so the more common route is vanity wrapped up in self-deprecation. Look at me, they cry, I know that I'm rubbish! Doesn't that make me great! JCVD, thankfully, avoids either obvious pole. Instead, it just tries to depict its lead in a neutral and natural way: no ridicule, no heroics, no apologies. This is, quite simply, a movie about Jean-Claude Van Damme. It might as well be a documentary. But it's all the better as a strange hybrid of fact and fiction.

Watch it. You'll have an eye out.
It's difficult for me to write about this film, because there are so many great little scenes and deft touches that I want to share with you, and yet actually discussing them before you've seen the film would, I really feel, diminish what's so great about them. Even discussing the film's premise (which is described in more length in most reviews than I've done here) seems like a terrible spoiler.

JCVD is part hostage drama, part art house movie - both halves working on their own and also gelling well together. As events snowballed, I found that the tense storyline really had me on the edge of my seat, while I found the more biographical portions to be evocative, witty and touching - even, in one unexpected sequence, bringing me almost to tears.

That sequence, in fact, had me thinking at first, “Holy crap, he can really act!” And then it struck me: “Wait. Maybe he's not acting.” Or maybe he's telling the truth and acting at the same time. Maybe, as in the rest of the movie, the boundaries between fiction and reality are hopelessly blurred. There's no way for the audience to know for sure, and that's an idea that JCVD quite happily embraces - plays with, even.

There are any number of reasons that you should pick up this movie. Whether it's the sheer novelty value of Jean-Claude Van Damme starring in a low-key drama made in his native country, the profound cinematography, the insightful take on being a star and a jobbing actor - or just because you want to see an interesting film that never strays too far from being about a gripping hostage situation... Well, it gets my seal of approval.

Surprising. Understated. And above all: memorable.

*One little footnote about this particular release: I'd say that 95% of this movie is in French with English subtitles, but there are no subtitles for the hearing impaired - meaning no captions for sound effects or English dialogue. And then there's the stereotypically 'Van Damme action movie' cover of the DVD, with explosions and roundhouse kicks. I can't work out if that's hopelessly cynical marketing or a very clever piece of intentional irony.

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