Jean-Claude Van Damme has spent the last 20 years convincing audiences that he can’t act, so the fact that he shows some vulnerability and emotional range in JCVD qualifies as a revelation. He’s gotten plenty of praise for demonstrating his heretofore-untapped abilities as a thespian, but the shock of seeing the “Muscles From Brussels” emote (mostly in his native language of French) may have blinded many to the fact that his big comeback vehicle is a pretty mediocre movie.
It’s certainly a big improvement over the cheap straight-to-video material that Van Damme has been relegated to in recent years, and it makes some amusing meta-commentary on life as an action star. And, yes, its much-hyped centerpiece—a lengthy single-shot monologue by Van Damme, in which he lays bare the frustrations of being an action-hero has-been—is impressive, even if it has little to do with the movie surrounding it. But writer-director El Mechri seems so enamored with the idea that he actually managed to rope Van Damme into playing a vaguely self-parodic version of himself that he doesn’t bother constructing a compelling story around his star.
The meat of the plot features Van Damme heading into a bank in his Belgian home town only to run smack into a robbery in progress. The cops mistake Van Damme for the perpetrator, and soon a media frenzy has developed. Along the way, El Mechri flashes back to events preceding the robbery, as Van Damme fights for custody of his daughter, endures humiliating meetings with his agent and deals with zealous fans invading his personal space.
The fractured structure and ponderous chapter titles suggest a more profound story than the fairly standard hostage thriller that actually presents itself, although El Mechri’s visual style is at times striking. He favors long, often complicated takes that can be virtuosic (as in the opening action sequence from a movie within the movie) or simply positioned to showcase his star (as in the mid-film monologue). The stylistic pretensions give JCVD an air of sophistication that it doesn’t quite deserve, but the redemption for its star is at least well-earned.