I think there's no shame in confessing a certain love for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Of all the late 80s/early 90s action stars, Van Damme was always the most likable, although that likability had as much to do with a certain goofball factor than any real talent. There was always something silly about Van Damme, even though he's not a bad martial artist by any means and is certainly physically imposing enough, but you could never look at this guy and buy him as any other kind of character than as Jean Claude Van Damme. I distinctly remember watching KICKBOXER with the old HQ 10 crew the night before its September 1989 opening, and we laughed our asses off during his drunken dance scene (to the tune of the cheap James Brown sound-alike, "Feeling So Good Today"); sure it was supposed to be funny, but he looked real stupid, endearingly so, and as he moved on from project to project - DEATH WARRANT, LIONHEART, DOUBLE IMPACT - trying to become the next Schwarzenegger, you could sense an eagerness to please, an attempt to grow, but no real talent. Unlike Seagal, who one would later come to dispise, Van Damme always seemed like he was trying, and when he started working with directors like John Woo on HARD TARGET and Peter Hyams on TIMECOP, the results were starting to show. The pictures were better, he was better, and you could sense a certain professionalism coming through. But then he pissed it away on second-rate material like STREET FIGHTER, SUDDEN DEATH and THE QUEST (which he directed) and it was all over. Although his two Tsui Hark epics, DOUBLE TEAM and KNOCK-OFF, were wonderful returns to the silliness of old, it was too late for Van Damme. Direct-to-video seemed just right, and that's where he went. Though those pictures typically do well for their limited budgets (they can apparently be depended upon for a few hundred thousand units sold), no one has really missed Van Damme on the big screen; he seemed to be at home on DVD. In an odd way, his latest, JCVD, can not only be deemed as a theatrical comeback but also as a re-introduction to those who forgot about him while the Jason Stathams of the world took his place. More so than putting Van Damme back in the spotlight, it does something for more important: By re-inventing Jean-Claude Van Damme, action star, as Jean-Claude Van Damme, human being, he makes himself relevant for the first time in his career.
There's no question that Van Damme desperately needed a film like JCVD. He had become a joke to some people, an afterthought to many, and an example of the perils of Hollywood. His E! True Hollywood Story is one of the most sobering because he himself participated, coming clean on his many years of drug abuse, failed marriages, and bad career choices. So the fact that Van Damme likewise lets it all hang out for JCVD, portraying himself as a washed-up, desperate version of himself, is to be commended. And that he does it quite well, putting a side of himself on camera that he's never been able to do before, is the film's greatest strength. Van Damme, the man, is what's on display here, not Van Damme, the movie star, and you can tell that JCVD is an opportunity for him to exorcise some demons and make peace with himself and his audience. Other stars have poked fun at themselves before, but I honestly can't recall the last time one disassembled themselves so mercilessly, like Van Damme had hit a brick wall and came to hate himself with all his might. Is it the real Jean-Claude Van Damme? No, of course it isn't, but it's about as close as we're ever going to come to seeing it in a movie and what you see here is pretty heartbreaking, no matter who it really is on screen. There's a moment in the film where Van Damme really lays it all on the line and gives a speech that unquestionably comes straight from the heart, and it's a beautiful thing to see. Other action stars have shown their sensitive sides, but what you see here is Van Damme emotionally stripping himself bare, and it's a hell of a moment. In what you see of Van Damme in JCVD, I now have little to no doubt that he can have a career as a legitimate actor if he really wants one, and if he goes back to the direct-to-DVD stuff he's been doing, he'll have lost my respect. But for now, for this moment, Jean-Claude Van Damme has finally become an actor.
So far as good as Jean-Claude Van Damme is, one wishes that JCVD were a better movie overall. I'd heard about it from the now-famous Cannes market screening where Van Damme received a standing ovation, and have even been driving around a van with "Van Dam" license plates around Austin, all because of Tim League's enthusiasm for the movie. So maybe the hype was a bit much, but JCVD, fine as it was, didn't blow me away as a movie like it has some others. The problem is tone; while El Merchri is admirably trying to make a picture that keeps the viewer on their toes, he's not quite doing right by the material. One scene is comic, the next is tragic; one scene is fantasy, the next is meant to be realistic. He can't really find the right one and it can be a bit annoying. While shooting the film with an intriguing bronze tint, he also robs some of the more dramatic, down-to-earth moments of any kind of impact they might have had because they look like they come from a movie. His non-linear narrative approach is admirable, but also disjointed and somewhat hard to follow at times (and I'm usually pretty good at following non-linear narratives - seriously, I am!). It doesn't derail JCVD - there's still plenty of entertainment to be found here - it just takes a potentially great movie and makes it merely good. I don't want to harp on El Mechri too much, because he's obviously trying and certainly loves his subject matter as much as we do, but it feels like he doesn't exactly have the steady hand needed to make JCVD more than what it is. I respect that it's not another Jean-Claude Van Damme movie (though I wouldn't mind another KNOCK OFF, to be honest), or even a mainstream Hollywood-type movie, but it's still lacking a certain focus that could have put it over the top. Still, it has Jean-Claude Van Damme, and that's what really matters. Before JCVD, a statement like that was meant facetiously, but here it's 100% genuine; Van Damme has made you care about him for the first time in well over a decade. He's getting these kudos and respect because he's finally earned them, and you have to admire that. JCVD is his ROCKY BALBOA.