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The Last Gasp of an Action Hero

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

What would Jean-Claude Van Damme be without his roundhouse kicks? That’s the question JCVD, a loosely biographical slice of cinema vérité about the so-called Muscles From Brussels, dares to ask, and you might be surprised at the answer.

Van Damme, once a bankable action hero but lately relegated to straight-to-DVD irrelevance, has founded his reputation on swift, acrobatic beat-downs and the self-satisfied one-liners that follow. (“Au revoir, f**ker,” from 1993’s Nowhere to Run, was his labored retort to Arnold’s “Hasta la vista, baby!”) Yet Van Damme always insisted that his dramatic skills dwarfed those of his muscle-bound peers, and considering that they included Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and the Governator, I’m inclined to agree.

Don’t take my word for it. In JCVD, Van Damme delivers a devastating performance as a downtrodden caricature of himself, a washed-up star living paycheck to paycheck and resigned to his fall from grace. It’s the kind of character who could be played for cheap, self-deprecating laughs -- just ask Bruce Campbell, who recently lampooned his own B-movie stardom with a characteristically cartoonish turn in My Name is Bruce -- but Van Damme infuses the role with such emotional complexity that he seems at times almost unrecognizable.

He is a man concerned less with his fading marketability than with the meaninglessness of his tattered legacy. What has he accomplished in life? To hear him tell it: absolutely nothing. He is a middle-aged man embroiled in an ugly child-custody battle, haunted by the drug abuse that felled his career and hoping for a second chance -- to be a better father, perhaps, or even a better son. He returns to Brussels as a sort of last-ditch ploy, maybe to rediscover the path that once led a naïve, 20-year old karate champion to Hollywood. Once there, he learns that old rival Steven Seagal has stolen his latest gig. Some things never change.

When Van Damme stumbles onto a post-office robbery near his childhood home, one wonders if the aging star has one last gasp of heroism left, but no. Having ascended Olympus and come down the other side, he is a mere mortal praying to make it through the day. Even in his most introspective moments, he finds dashes of ironic humor, as when one of his captors nervously asks for an autograph while waving a gun in his face. But Van Damme is no longer interested in perpetuating alpha-male myths, even if the people around him seem far more intrigued by the myths than anything else he has to offer.

Some have likened Van Damme’s performance in JCVD to the self-effacing cameos Bruce Willis once used to reinvigorate his own flagging career, but there is a brutal honesty in this portrayal that Willis, for all his tongue-in-cheek turns, has rarely achieved. Van Damme projects the unaffected weariness of a man who has been there, done that, and is ready for the next chapter of his life to begin. Put simply, he is nothing short of a revelation.