Thursday, December 4, 2008

DAMME GOOD

Action star's heart is his strongest muscle

Posted on Thu, Dec 4, 2008 at 4:00 AM

****
JCVD
Studio: Peace Arch Entertainment Group
Rated: R
Release Date: 2008-12-05
Cast: Jean-Claude van Damme, Francois Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra, Jean-Francois Wolff
Director: Mabrouk El Mechri
WorkNameSort: JCVD
Our Rating: 4.00

With JCVD, French-Algerian writer-director Mabrouk El Mechri dances with a postmodern premise ' to wit, 'What would happen if an aging action star got caught up in a real bank robbery?â?� ' and coincidentally, gives that star the fresh beginning in the real world that he seeks in the film. The high concept at work here is that JCVD, the character, is identical to Jean-Claude Van Damme, the actor, in circumstance: wearied by a child-custody struggle, battered by years of karate stunts, resentful that he's never broken into big studio stardom.

At its core ' hell, all the way through, under its skin of meta-reality ' JCVD is a classic heist film, not much different from The Bank Job or Dog Day Afternoon. But El Mechri delivers more blows to the cerebellum than his star as viewers trace the ins and outs of the flick's spiraling structure.

The movie opens with a showy, single-camera tracking shot, four uncut minutes of Van Damme spreading mayhem through a generic World War II set, in which we gradually begin to notice mistakes ' punches that don't quite connect, squibs going off a beat too late or not at all. The in-joke feeling of being on both sides of the camera is established immediately, even before we meet the film-within-a-film's sulky Asian director throwing darts at a poster of the Hollywood sign.

JCVD's attempt to rest and regroup in his Belgian hometown is derailed when, jet-lagged and short of cash, he pops into a post office to pick up a wire transfer and walks into a 'situation,â?� as the saying goes. Once the story kicks in, the whiff of homage to 1975's Dog Day Afternoon is unmistakable: the interaction between hostages and their captors, the backbiting among the thieves as the heist goes awry, the cheering crowds outside, the bewildered parents dragged in by the cops, right down to the long-haired baddie.

While this isn't El Mechri's first film, it's the first to reach any sizable audience outside France, and it has the feel of a debut. He's ambitious, but a little immature ' too many ideas and tricks are crammed onscreen. With the flashbacks, the bleached-out sepia tone and dreamlike lighting, the forced literary quotes heading 'chapters,â?� you can feel the young auteur just out of frame, willing the audience to catch all his references. Unlike Van Damme, El Mechri's pretentiousness is in its first bloom.

Van Damme is almost astoundingly good. He is so real, so present, so natural that El Mechri's cinéaste fripperies fall flat by comparison. With all the qualities a tabloid-hungry mediaverse might infer ' desperation, bitterness ' established as a given of the character, he lays himself bare onscreen. By exposing and acknowledging all the indignities, the snubs, the embarrassing missteps and self-aggrandizing statements, paradoxically, he regains his dignity and our respect. When his wife's lawyer reels off a list of all the (cheesy) ways he's inflicted violence on film, he shouts, 'All of my films are having heart!â?� As a mea culpa, it falls on more receptive ears than the court's ' those of his fans, ironic and otherwise. Haggard, scarred, but still fit, he seems like a racehorse past its prime but still running, still striving for glory ' as they say about these dumb animals that won't quit, he's got heart.

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