Jean-Claude Van Damme’s cinema career petered out in the late 90s. As he started to head into DTV territory he still had the occasional film hit theatres over here. Knock Off came and went, and then finally Universal Soldier: The Return was perhaps one last stab at a big hit. It had fighting and wrestling names attached and a director not shy of shooting the odd fist in his lens. But the film failed.
Several DTV films (of mixed quality) and almost a decade later, JCVD came out of nowhere. As comebacks go, this one must rate highly. Not only was it his return to cinema screens, it was also a bold film that saw the aging star play himself and mock his personal life, but also study it. And it wasn’t even in English! A bold choice and one that paid off in every aspect the film had to offer us.
We find Jean-Claude in a bit of a mess. His career has stalled. He isn’t getting the roles he wants, and even (quite hilariously) losing out on roles to Steven Seagal. He has child alimony to pay – and it’s this detail that lands him in deep shit when he goes to a post office to wire a payment before his child is taken away from him.
But let’s back up to the start. Despite JCVD not being heavy on action (it is essentially a drama), the opening one shot sequence finds us following Van Damme through a long on-set sequence for a film he’s making. The choreography of this set-piece is unbelievable. Timing was key on the day and they pulled it off with gusto and with the film’s wonderful grainy look. The punchline though is that in the shot’s last moments something goes wrong. Cut is called and Jean-Claude finds a solitary moment to sigh and look depressed. It’s a real attention grabber.
He travels back to Belgium to get a few of his affairs in order. During his time here runs into various locals who respond to him excitedly or are repelled by his stature as a movie star. Either way, he sighs and grumbles his way around town until he ends up in the post office. And this is where the film spends most of its time. Initially JC just wants a simple request handled by the clerk – but as the clerk (unknown to our star) is being held up, he loses his temper a bit until he discovers that trouble is brewing and he is also taken captive.
The media frenzy outside escalates to the point where JC is identified wrongly as the person holding the post office up. He spends much of his time talking to both captives and captors – barley lifting a finger to “save the day” as would be the case in any other action film. Flashes to his past take place as the situation grows and the pressure mounts.
And then something quite wonderful happens. A scene opens with JC sitting in a chair minding his own business. The people in the room are silent, the noise from the television in the background is all that’s heard. And then suddenly JC starts to rise up. Still sat in his chair, he’s elevated up so high that we end up among the studio lighting of the set. It’s a bizarre thing to happen as you realise that he’s exited the movie. He looks up, faces the camera and then breaks the fourth wall.
What happens here is seven minutes of uninterrupted dialogue from Van Damme as he bears his soul to the audience. He contemplates the decisions he’s made and the many mistakes, and on at least two occasions, breaks down into tears. It’s a strong emotional piece of material that gives the viewer much honesty from a broken down former Hollywood star. It feels very natural and you can clearly see an emotionally tortured man. And in his native tongue, his words don’t feel forced or twanged with an accent that doesn’t fit the dialogue.
To say that this scene is the highlight of the film is stating the obvious. And when it’s done, he returns to the studio floor as he was and the scene continues. The rest of the film has minor flaws here and there, but overall this is JCVD’s best film. It’s his most accomplished and it’s his bravest. Perhaps we may rather watch the low budget fighting of Bloodsport and Kickboxer, or the high-tech of Timecop or Sudden Death, but there’s no denying what was pulled off here. The performance is flawless.
JCVD doesn’t stop their either. Even after the film finds a solution to the hold-up we’re given another scene worthy of dissection. With only one robber left and Van Damme being held at gunpoint outside in front of a massed crowd of fans, he manages to disarm the man in true JCVD fashion and then kicks the assailant in the face. It makes the crowd cheer and he raises his arms to the air in glory. But it’s completely fake. Only too quickly the film jolts back to him being held at gunpoint and the police instead take down the bad guy and then arrest Van Damme (as they still believe he’s part of the problem). It’s a great commentary on Van Damme as action star delivering what we might perceive to be the ending we want; but we are dragged out of fantasy to a more realistic reality of him not solving the problem at all and being arrested.
Finding himself in prison for a year, the film ends on a bittersweet note where he finally gets to talk to his estranged daughter.
JCVD proves without a doubt that Van Damme has hidden talents and still has much to say (and his reality show Behind Closed Doors has proven that further). He has since gone on to do more DTV movies as well as direct his second feature The Eagle Path. He’s also in the meantime returned to Hollywood with a small voice part in Kung Fu Panda 2 (which technically is his first sequel ever! And not even to a film he did originally. But Double Impact 2 may also become a reality), and now the news is that he may well appear in Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables 2. First up though is his return to the ring as a professional fighter. At 50 Van Damme is back proving his salt and has been given a shot at redeeming himself.