JCVD is Being John Malkovich for kickboxing fans, a cleverly stylish and scrappily well-done slice of meta-moviemaking that causes us to rethink Jean-Claude Van Damme, a screen presence who most haven't considered in any terms for the better part of a decade. Few could more reliably open a movie in the early-to-mid 1990s, but Van Damme has fallen out of favor recently, with most of his films taking a quick (and deserved) path directly to DVD.
Van Damme plays "Jean-Claude Van Damme," and surmising as to how much of the character is autobiography is one of the voyeuristic pleasures of the film. To be sure, this is not a vanity project--this Van Damme is a washed-up, past-his-prime action star who can't get a decent job anymore. He's lost a custody battle with one of his many former wives, and he seems forever stuck in straight-to-DVD hell. He returns to Brussels to try to get his life back together, but a banking errand finds him inadvertently walking into a robbery in progress--and when police misinterpret him as the ringleader, the whole thing turns into a bit of a circus. Inside the bank, however, Van Damme the action star is faced with a crisis in real life, and the dichotomy between the on-screen hero and the flesh-and-blood man provides further fodder for this surprisingly thoughtful and entertaining picture.
It sounds like a crackpot idea, but it somehow works--and not just as a joke or a gimmick. Now, it works on those levels too; Van Damme is admirably game and clearly has a sense of humor about himself, as evidenced by the self-referential material (including a running joke about him losing a role to Steven Seagal, who was willing to cut off his ponytail). And the idea of an action star sending himself up is a good one, though clearly not enough to sustain a film by itself (see Last Action Hero or Sidekicks--or, better yet, don't).
But JCVD also stands on its own two feet as a smart and engaging indie flick. It is, first and foremost, a cool-looking film; director Mabrouk El Mechri has a terrific visual sense, and cinematographer Pierre-Yves Bastard (yep, that's his real name) uses a blown-out, bleached-film look (complimented by hot pools of white light) to give the film a distinctive feel. Mechris' compositions and camera choreography are equally impressive--particularly in the opening sequence, an action sequence in a single unbroken shot that is both thrilling (for the gymnastics of both Van Damme and the camera) and hilarious (in a nice extra layer of story set-up, the low-budget film-within-the-film that it's part of is just a little off, with some badly staged punches, overdone foley work, and extras just a beat or two too late).
Mechri also (wisely) chooses not to cut during Van Damme's finest acting moment, a brutally honest monologue, straight into camera, that serves as not only an effective kick into the third act (establishing, as it does, some real stakes and therefore genuine suspense and interest), but as a forceful poke in the eye to an industry that may have been underestimating the big lunk. This is a honest-to-God performance (in spite of the autobiographical overtones), and should be respected and acknowledged as such; clearly more comfortable speaking in his native tongue, Van Damme is likable, believable, and surprisingly sympathetic and charismatic.
Supporting performances are serviceable, while the screenplay (by Mechri, Frederic Benudis, and Christophe Turpin) is ingeniously constructed, and helped along by Gast Waltzing's terrific 70s-style score. JCVD isn't Oscar fodder, but it is a lot of fun--a decent little no-frills action movie that may pump a shot of adrenaline into a career that we, perhaps unfairly, had written off.
The video quality of Peace Arch's Region 1 DVD is tricky to discuss; the MPEG-4 AVC encode perfectly captures the gritty look and feel of the 2.35:1 image, though some may be put off by the heavy grain and drab color scheme of the film. It certainly doesn't have the eye-popping, vivid colors and pretty images that we often look to Blu-ray to capture, but it is an absolutely accurate representation of the movie's theatrical presentation.
The audio options are a little confusing; the set-up menus unwisely divvy them up using the word "version," which makes it sound as though there are different cuts of the film included--this is not the case. To be clear--we have a "Theatrical Version," which is, as seen in American theaters, in French 5.1 with English subtitles (and a bit of non-subtitled English dialogue). Then we have an "English version," also 5.1, dubbed into English with no subtitles. Then there is a "French version," which is basically the theatrical version without the English subtitles, so that it can be watched without distraction by French viewers. Then the disc also offers Spanish subtitles and English subtitles for the hard of hearing (presumably only for the English dubbed version).
So how is the audio? Quite solid, actually. Dialogue is crisp and audible, with a nice spread of sound effects to the surround channels (particularly in that opening action scene and the film's other bursts of gunplay and action) and solid, heavy bass from the score livening up the subwoofer. The mix isn't quite as solid in the English version--the dubbed dialogue really sounds false with a track of this much clarity--but it's still serviceable, if the idea of reading puts you off the French version. One minor disappointment: the UK Blu-ray disc reportedly includes a French TrueHD option, which is sorely missed here.
The special features are a little disappointing, particularly for what they don't include: the featurettes from the UK disc are not included, nor is the clever teaser trailer that was floating around the Internet last year (in which Van Damme stumbles into an audition for the film that he hasn't been invited to--even though the actors are reading for the role of JCVD). What we do get is the excellent Theatrical Trailer (2:16), which is a good tool for talking your friends into watching the movie if they're skeptical; and two Deleted Scenes (5:31 total). One is an alternate one-shot version (or maybe it's just the raw footage) of the funny "kicking the cigarette" scene; the other is a scene in which he talks about his self-education and some philosophical stuff to his fellow hostages. This was a wise deletion; its inclusion would have softened the impact of his revelatory straight-to-camera monologue.
I originally saw JCVD in the theater, and I can report that it holds up--perhaps even improves--on second viewing. With the giggle-factor of Van Damme's self-parodying performance out of the way, I was able to better appreciate the skill with which Mechri assembles this most unorthodox indie action/comedy. It's a smart, funny, inventive and unexpected flick.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.