‘There’s somethin’ strange, in the neighbourhood, who you gonna call? – Jean Claude van Damme.’ If Ghostbuster’s was still the international flavour of the season, the anthem every Belgian would be singing while walking the streets of the hometown of the ‘Muscle from Brussels’ would be this.
Jean Claude Van Damme has been Belgium’s biggest export till Kim Klijsters took away that tag by going love-all with the US Open centre court audience, and he has had a hard fought career roundhouse kicking his way to the top of Direct-to-Video stardom. Not to take away from the fact that he has been a part of successful mainstream Hollywood franchises and individual action movies that have cemented his place as the go-to guy of the non-squint-eyed variety (I am not being racist here, its Hollywood dammit).
There is no ballet in the action sequences he executes, nor memorable one-liners that would tickle the bad guys to no end. Here is an out-and-out action star who’s main competitor in the ’80s and much of the ’90s was a certain Steven Seagal.
‘Until Death‘ was the first Van Damme movie that gave a glimpse of what he was capable of in terms of lending credibility to his character as someone who could make it to the Oscar podium someday. A totally uncharacteristic performance from the slam-bang goings-on in the Direct-to-Video market, this movie did go the same way, but received wider acclaim as time wore on. And then there was JCVD.
JCVD, an acronym for Jean Claude Van Damme, is the story of a washed up Van Damme who is stuck with direct-to-video releases in the international market, with no brain actioners that manage to just keep the fires burning. This semi-autobiographical film, though fictitious in nature, places Van Damme playing himself in a situation that he could very well have experienced had things gone out of hand in the near past. Director Mabrouk El Mechri, was himself a fan of the Van Damme school of Martial Arts, that brought Bloodsport, Hard Target, Double Impact the respect they deserved in a saturated end of millennium action genre market.
As Van Damme fights a custody case for his daughter in JCVD and fights battles against creditors, he gets back to Belgium for one last try at finding himself as an actor who could relive some past glory. In familiar territory, he gets to meet his fans who stop him to pose for pictures, reminding him of the huge international star he was.
Popping into a post office to withdraw some cash, more as a last resort, he runs into an actual robbery happening and from then on a comedy of errors leads to Van Damme being the main suspect in this robbery that turns into a hostage situation à la ‘Dog Day Afternoon‘ except that there’s no cross dressing lipstick smeared Lothario waiting at the other end.
JCVD turns into a dark comedy infused with Shakespearean intent where the character breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience. This is Van Damme’s finest hour, as in the midst of the hostage situation he launches into a monologue that would make Ian Mackellan‘s Old Vic renderings as impressive as Magneto’s raised eyebrow in each franchise event of the X-Men series.
I felt sad for Van Damme. Here was an action star who ruled the global action box office and was now reduced to being rejected by his very daughter for being a laughing stock of an actor. Two images strike the heart – Van Damme’s rejection by his daughter and the redemption that takes place when she claims him back when he is truly down and out. Watch his face when these events occur. With all due respect to JCVD, it would roundhouse kick every other Oscar emotion that Sean Penn ‘Milk’ed to the brim, and knock the hat off The Last King of Scotland.
Mabrouk El Mechri is a true fan – a fan who knows what this star is worth. Van Damme’s second lease of life, what with the glowing critic reviews, has extended his stay on the dramaction zone where he need not do any more cameos on series like ‘Friends’ and can command himself to opt out of ‘Expendables‘. He is no more the expendable, but a force that can reaffirm his export quality status for Belgium.