The opening sequence of 'JCVD' is an exercise in filmmaking smarts.
The opening sequence of JCVD is an exercise in filmmaking smarts. In a single long take, a battle ready Jean-Claude Van Damme kicks, punches, dodges and weaves, stabs and shoots his way through a horde of armed assailants, while Curtis Mayfield’s lyrics for ‘Hard Time’ (‘…I played the part I feel they want of me’) echo on the soundtrack. Just as he appears to reach safety, the film set collapses and the one-time ‘potential A-lister’ trudges off dejected to complain to the film’s director, “It’s very difficult for me to do everything…I’m 47 years old”. So it is, or at least was, for the career of Van Damme, whose off-screen rap sheet of drug and alcohol fuelled exploits and misadventures have seen him slide from big-screen Hollywood action hero to straight-to-video what’s-his-name. With the release of Mabrouk El Mechri’s wonderfully innovative JCVD however, suddenly Van Damme’s star status may once again be on the rise. Returning from Hollywood to Belgium out of work, in debt to his lawyers over a failed child custody case, and hoping to start life anew, the Jean-Claude Van Damme of JCVD is a forlorn figure…and things quickly get worse. When he attempts to withdraw money at a post-office he inadvertently becomes embroiled in a hold-up, and the ‘Muscles from Brussels’ soon finds himself the main attraction for both his captors and the cops. With its resonances of other postmodern styled ‘self-reflexive’ narratives (ie. Being John Malkovich), JCVD weaves its commentary on the nature of celebrity, stardom, and film violence into a thoroughly arresting hostage scenario drama. Helmed with a delicate balance of humour and pathos, El Mechri deserves serious credit for the success of JCVD, allowing the characters and not just clever concept to drive the film’s narrative. Similarly, Van Damme, back home and speaking in his native French tongue, has never performed better than he does here; his forced smiles and tired eyes barely concealing the deep despair lurking beneath. It’s precisely that kind of vulnerability – a stark contrast to his action hero persona – that makes JCVD’s blurring of the boundaries between image and man so engaging. However, the intriguing blend of reality and fiction that underscores the film is never more engrossing than in the moment when Van Damme turns to the camera, addressing the audience as the set falls away beneath him, to deliver an astonishingly heartfelt confessional: “You made my dream come true… I promised you something in return and I haven’t delivered yet”. Jean-Claude Van Damme – consider the debt now paid! JCVD is screening in Victoria at ACMI from 5th - 18th March, and in other states as part of the French Film Festival. See these websites for further details:

Josh Nelson

Friday 27 February, 2009

About the author

Josh Nelson is a freelance academic, critic and filmmaker. In addition to running the Philmology website [] Josh currently lectures on cinema and cultural studies at a number of tertiary and secondary institutions.