It's been 10 years since Jean-Claude Van Damme made a movie that got a theatrical release in the United States, and you can see each one of those years in his face, which is slashed with worry lines. There was a time when Van Damme, "The Muscles from Brussels," was the Next Big Thing in international action-traction. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were getting up there in years, and Van Damme seemed like a cuter version of Der Ahnuld, with a French-Belgian accent that suggested lover-boy potential à la Mel Gibson. But it didn't work out that way. Thanks to bad movie choices, but also to his limitations as an actor, Van Damme was never able to break out of the kickboxing ghetto. Nor was he able to crack the Top Three of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Seagal. Soon, his films were heading straight to video.
But now he's back with a movie designed to confound his critics, not to mention resurrect his career. JCVD is what you get when you combine Dog Day Afternoon with Curb Your Enthusiasm, a slightly tongue-in-cheek heist film starring a famous person as some version of himself. And in Brussels, where the movie's set, there's nobody more famous than Van Damme. As everyone keeps saying, he's the guy "who left this shithole for Hollywood." When the movie opens, he's back in Brussels for various personal and professional reasons, but while attempting to withdraw some money from a bank he becomes involved in a robbery that's already under way. And when the police and SWAT team, plus the press, arrive, he gets mistaken for a hostage-taker instead of a hostage. In other words, he's trapped in a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.
The real/reel dichotomy just got explored vis-à-vis action stars in Bolt, where the action star happened to be a dog, but JCVD has a few tricks up its sleeve that liven things up nicely. Director and co-writer Mabrouk El Macri splinters the narrative in that Tarantino way, so that we keep coming back to the same events from a different perspective, and this enhances the movie's hall-of-mirrors effect. Also, while putting Van Damme front and center, El Macri keeps the focus on those around him - his loyal fans, whose loyalty turns into resentment if he fails to live up to their expectations; the police, who treat him more like a star than a perp; and the robbers, who weren't expecting company and now can't help sliding even further into the role of "bad guys." One, in particular, has a sadistic edge that gives JCVD an extra dollop of menace.
Van Damme has always seemed a little dead when he wasn't administering a karate kick. But this time he's been asked to act, and he's managed to turn in a credible performance, no doubt benefiting from the fact that he's playing himself. Still, playing oneself isn't as easy as you might think, and the movie throws in a six-minute soliloquy by Van Damme that breaks the fourth wall and stops the movie in its tracks. It appears to be some kind of confession, Van Damme apologizing for doing whatever it took to become a star, for getting hooked on drugs and plowing through women. Meant to be taken seriously? Who knows, but at least it's done with conviction, which is more than you can say for most of Van Damme's previous acting. If meta-narrative is the last refuge of the scoundrel, it's still fun to watch this one dance on his own grave.