It’s an insider secret that us movie critics never talk smack about action stars for fear they’ll land their private jets in the gravel driveway of our trailer parks, front-kick our doors off their tin hinges, and pound us into movie critic-gravy.
That’s why I pretend to love Vin Diesel despite a filmography that reads like a nonstop series of roundhouses to the face. (Yes, pretend. Now hang on while I cryogenically freeze myself until the Pitch Black sequel Riddick releases in 2012.) So be warned: when I say fairly glowing things about 2008’s JCVD, it might just be to escape the beating of my life.
Home in Belgium after losing custody of his daughter, Jean-Claude Van Damme (playing himself, basically) is embroiled in a real-life bank robbery gone wrong. With the police believing he’s behind the ensuing hostage situation, he may need more than his decades of karate training to make it out intact.
JCVD is a clever conceit, which means the film itself should be dumber than the 50 bricks Van Damme can punch through in a single blow. Nine times out of 10 a movie like this would be a running joke at Van Damme’s expense, cheap gags about mullets and mushy accents that do nothing more than squeeze a little more juice out of the overripe fruit of a fading star.
JCVD does have a little of that. In one scene, he finds out he lost a role to Steven Seagal because Seagal promised to cut off his ponytail. A gun-wielding criminal goes on at length about how without Van Damme, John Woo would still be filming pigeons in Hong Kong.
Which is pretty funny, honestly. But the real surprise is Van Damme is capable of conveying emotions more complex than the triumph of kicking a bad guy’s head so hard it converts into the UV rays action stars need to keep their tans summer strong.
Van Damme may be a movie star, the hero of Belgium, but in JCVD he’s broke, exhausted and worn down by losing his daughter. It’s a lot harder to save the day when the gun in your face is real. His believable, sympathetic performance adds an unexpected gravity to director/cowriter Mabrouk El Mechri’s witty crime drama. JCVD was obviously designed to be something of a career resurrector.
In Van Damme’s case, he may be worth bringing back.
*Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson @gmail.com