Watch now on:
Kickboxer, you are my father.
Or at least that’s how it often felt, both for me and so many young men of the early ’90s on those dateless Saturday nights, with only the 1989 leg-snapping Golan-Globus spectacular playing in an endless loop on Cinemax and any premium cabler looking to hook the boobs-and-blood-lust crowd. That so many men were fed the revenge thriller (along with 1988’s Bloodsport) like foie gras geese undoubtedly explains the massive current success of UFC and mixed martial arts in general.
It also perhaps explains why so many of us refuse to allow Jean-Claude Van Damme to progress beyond those halcyon days. To too many of us, he is forever the half-cartoon “Muscles from Brussels,” a 3D-printer-made Schwarzenegger to be envied for his physical prowess but otherwise pitied as a punchline and relic of late-Cold-War cinema. Suggest the idea that he is indeed an artist and storyteller embedded with a heart and soul and you are more likely to get eye-rolls than supporters.
JCVD is as powerful a rebuke to such shortsightedness and outright dismissal as could possibly be committed to film. Made in 2008 and directed by the young French filmmaker Mabrouk El Mechri, who bathes the film in glowing, bouncing light and washed-out color of half-remembered truths, the film comes off as a kind-of Godard-directed fever dream of our collective unconscious. It’s an art heist film starring Van Damme as Jean-Claude Van Damme, a former Hollywood action star whose drugs-and-divorce bruised existence seems finally broken by a custody hearing that goes badly (his daughter wants to live with her mom because the kids at school make fun of her father).
Spiritually adrift and unable to pay his lawyer, he returns to his native Belgium to recharge and stumbles into a hostage situation while in desperate need of a wire transfer. (One cannot express the strange catharsis of seeing the star of Timecop being shut out at an ATM.) Due to misunderstandings and his inserting himself as a kind of peacekeeper among the half-assed yet homicidal crooks (as well as using the situation to cover his legal bills), it is quickly assumed by police that this washed-up actor is the man behind the increasingly bloody stand-off.
But being considered the mastermind behind an ill-fated heist is not the primary misconstrued perception that JCVD— man or movie— is at war with. The film confronts the idea of perception and reality in a ways that are both touching and profound, whether it’s seeing Van Damme survive a cab ride where the cabbie berates him for being too tired to chat, or an indifferent 20-something director who insists on shooting physically demanding action sequences in a single take despite his star’s advancing age. While that results in one of the more thrilling cold opens this side of Touch of Evil, it is not even close to the most enduring single-take shot in a movie that’s filled with them.
That honor belongs to the storied shot near the end of the film where Van Damme is physically lifted out of the movie and the tearful actor (and you will not consider him anything less after seeing it) delivers a gut-wrenching improvised monologue. In a rare moment of profound post-modernism and self-awareness that doesn’t descend into cheap irony, Van Damme confronts the nothingness of existence, his drug use and decline, his many wives, and ultimately the beauty of human life.
But really what he’s staring down is us, you and me, the kids from the basement with the Cheeto-stained fingers, the ones who refused to see beyond the image that made them feel less alone and a little pumped up. By beating back his demons, he is imploring us to confront our own, and in doing so JCVD not only changes forever our notion of what Jean-Claude Van Damme truly means, but really redefines the concept of heroism itself.
Did you really think we could talk about Jean-Claude Van Damme without showing you this?