Pity Steven Seagal couldn't ever make a movie like this. Not just because his initials would have caused the movie to be called "SS" -- not the most desirable title -- but because the ponytailed one is ultimately not half the actor that Jean Claude Van Damme is. Also, Seagal's karate is a joke.
The kicker of a conceit behind Mabrouk El Mechri's meta-action drama JCVD is that Van Damme plays himself, an aging action star whose life is already falling apart before he gets pulled into his own action film. The muscles from Brussels is back in his home town, just trying to get his life together. A custody proceeding back in California is sucking the life out of him and his career is in the toilet. Approaching 50 years old, the Van Damme of the film is still recognized everywhere he goes -- certain brands of action heroes have a shelf life that outlasts the release dates of their more popular films by at least a decade, it seems -- but that isn't translating into enough lucre to pay off the ex-wife. So Van Damme finds himself running around trying to get a money transfer and ends up at the one post office in Brussels where a robbery and hostage situation is taking place. Article continues below
Police flood the neighborhood, and mistakenly believe that Van Damme himself is behind the holdup. Unbeknownst to the hostage negotiators and SWAT team grouped outside, Van Damme is a prisoner as well, sitting there in cold sweat like all the others, doing his best to charm the hostage takers (teaching a few karate moves works wonders) in between having flashbacks about his recent miseries. Outside, the crowds wave signs and cheer for their guy. Villain or hero, the gathered throng cares not.
El Mechri has enough of a sense of humor to keep things moving, giving Van Damme the occasional ribbing (one scene has him listening to his agent tell him that a part he was gunning for was given to Seagal, several others knowingly reference Van Damme's infamous rambling TV interviews). The director is also perfectly happy to bust the fourth wall, such as in one tense scene in the post office which is put on hold so that Van Damme can be lifted up through the ceiling up amongst the light rigging so that he can deliver a monologue on his sad life (living the high life, drugs, the inevitable crash, neglect) directly to the screen.
Van Damme does more than a credible job here; it can be surprisingly hard for actors to convincingly play themselves. Though it would be overstating the case to say that Van Damme is ready to be considered an actor who could hold his own in a serious drama, his performance has enough echoes of the lost-it-all pathos exhibited by Mickey Rourke in this year's The Wrestler to give one pause.
But even with a smart concept and playful humor, JCVD runs out of juice before its conclusion. The fault lies not with Van Damme, but rather with the screenplay. Written by El Mechri, along with Frédéric Bénudis and Christophe Turpin, the screenplay strands its characters for long stretches in which they have to repeat themselves time and again to dwindling effect. This is a film that certainly deserves credit for its willingness to play with the rules and throw a few conceptual curveballs at audiences (whether arthouse or action) who aren't going to know what to expect. But in the end it's just not enough.