Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…

France!  France by way of Belgium anyway…  It’s the end of the year, and with it comes a time of reflection on the films released in the past twelve months.  There were many great performances this year, but there’s one that impressed me the most.  One performance that made me think about the actor in an entirely new light.  More accurately, it made me see the actor as an actor for the very first time.  No, I’m not talking about Heath Ledger as The Joker.  He’s always been a talented actor, and his skill combined with that character created a phenomenal screen villain.  I’m not speaking of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler either.  Yes, it’s a great piece of acting, but is it really that much of a surprise?  Once upon a time, Rourke was viewed as a skilled and effective actor.  Films like The Pope of Greenwich Village, Barfly, and even Angel Heart showed that the man could impress when he chose to.  No, the most impressive and surprising performance of the year came from…

Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD.  And no, I’m not joking.

JCVD stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as himself (and if you think that absolves his performance of any real acting skill you’re wrong.)  The ‘Muscles from Brussels’ returns to his hometown in Belgium to start fresh, get healthy, and be near his family.  He’s just finished a physically exhausting film shoot, and an even more painful day in a Los Angeles family court where he’s fighting for custody of his daughter.  The girl chooses to live with her mother, because when daddy’s on TV the other kids make fun of her.  A financial screw-up leaves him with canceled credit cards, no cash, and a deadline from his lawyer demanding payment by noon.  He poses for some photos with fans, heads into a local bank, and finds himself trapped in the middle of an ongoing robbery.  A policeman outside sees Van Damme blocking the windows inside the bank, assumes he’s involved, and before long the streets are filled with police, the press, and a throng of supporters.

An alternately sad and humorous take on the irony of celebrity, JCVD is funny and touching in equal measures.  Fans of Van Damme and of action films will appreciate the several references to the genre.  Steven Seagal steals a role from Van Damme by promising to cut off his pony-tail.  The main bad guy’s revolver fires an astounding seventeen shots without needing to be reloaded.  Van Damme makes mention of his film Hard Target, and Arthur, one of the robbers who happens to be a big Van Damme fan takes issue.

Hard Target! John Woo! What an ass!”
“Don’t say that!”
“C’mon Jean-Claude, wait a sec! You’re the one who brought him to the US. Without you he’d still be filming pigeons in Hong Kong! And then what? He drops you!”
“At least he did Face/Off.”
“So what! He could have picked you. On the other hand, when you see Windtalkers there’s a justice…”

Conversations like this and others, as well as Van Damme’s perfectly expressive reactions show the man to have a previously undiscovered talent for comic timing and emoting.  His face has filled with character over the years, and he wears it perfectly.  The movie opens with an extended action scene shot in one long, tiring take, from a movie he’s currently filming.  Van Damme runs, jumps, kicks, punches, shoots, throws grenades, and it all ends abruptly when a fake wall falls to the ground revealing the crew behind.  “It’s very difficult for me to do everything in one shot,” he wheezes to the young, uninterested director between breathes. “You know, I’m 47 years old…”  Sure he could still kick your ass at 47, but he’s not afraid to show the effort it entails and the pain it inflicts on his body.

He’s self-deprecating about more than just his physique and abilities.  A conversation with his agent plays out very realistically, as he pleads for a studio film instead of the next straight-to-DVD, shot-in-Bulgaria action pic.  Instead of doing a six million dollar film where he gets four million and very little is left to create a worthwhile film, why can’t he work for scale in a Hollywood studio movie?  It’s a believable discussion I can see actually playing out between Van Damme and his real agent, especially as the disappointment pours from the star’s cracked and weathered face.

Writer/director Mabrouk El Mechri fills the movie with stylistic touches as well, from the washed out and muted palette to a policeman’s wall pounding that transforms into the score itself to some playful chronological tweaks.  One scene in particular has garnered a lot of talk, and it is a quiet stunner.  Van Damme, sitting in a chair surrounded by gunmen and hostages alike, is slowly lifted upwards.  The camera stays with him as he moves above the set revealing the sound stage for what it is.  He looks into the camera and delivers an emotional and obviously heartfelt six-minute monologue directly to the viewer.  It’s a moving and very human scene from a man known mostly for his flying knee kicks.

JCVD isn’t a perfect film.  The ridiculousness of a robbery gone awry sniffs at the heels of Dog Day Afternoon, but never takes the time to explore the trio of robbers as anything more than two-dimensional antagonists.  They fair better than the hostages though who barely even speak.  Van Damme’s sympathetic portrayal of an outwardly strong but inwardly weak action star makes you wish for a rejuvenating beat down that never truly comes.  And El Mechri’s script makes plenty of observations about the world of celebrities, but really isn’t saying anything new.  Luckily, his star is.

I’m not claiming Van Damme gave the best performance of the year, but it is without a doubt the most surprising, unexpected, and rewarding one.  The true rebirth this year, the one that deserves more recognition, and the one that comes paired with a very good, fun, and entertaining movie belongs to Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD.  Give him a chance to surprise you too, and even if you aren’t as impressed with him as I was, JCVD is still a fun and interesting movie.  And Hollywood?  Or any worthwhile directors out there?  Give him a chance in your next indie comedy or drama.  He’s earned it.  (And then maybe we can finally get that director’s cut of Woo’s Hard Target…)

JCVD is currently in limited theatrical release, and will most likely be out on DVD by March 2009.  Check out the trailer below.

The Upside: Van Damme can act; Van Damme is funny; Gaumont’s altered opening studio logo is awesome

The Downside: Mickey Rourke’s The Wrestler stole Van Damme’s thunder as the “comeback” story of the year


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