JCVD (2008)
By: Captain Red Eye on March 19, 2010  | 
Paramount | Region 4, PAL | 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced) | French DD 5.1 | 93 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Mabrouk El Mechri
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra
Screenplay: Christophe Turpin
Country: France
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Returning to his hometown of Brussels after a trip to Los Angeles, action movie stalwart Jean-Claude Van Damme is a shadow of his former self, and both the 47-year-old's career and personal life are seriously floundering. Relegated to mindless hack roles, engaged in a bitter custody dispute and seriously short of funds, the struggling actor's luck degenerates further when he is unwittingly embroiled in a violent post office/bank heist. As if that wasn't bad enough he is framed by the perpetrators as the mastermind of the robbery, and must not only negotiate with police and attempt to limit the bloodshed but somehow convince the world of his innocence.

This is a tightly-paced and cleverly-scripted outing, which is good news for those of us who grew up on a steady diet of Bloodsport, Universal Soldier and Hard Target. Though Swarzennegger and Stallone are both doing rather nicely for themselves these days, the past decade has been tough on their brethren like Dolph Lundgren, Steven Seagal and Van Damme. Pumping out STV fare for a fraction of their former paydays, the trio undoubtedly please their diehard fans but seem unlikely to regain anything but a fraction or their former glory, no matter how entertaining such modestly budgeted offerings like The Peacekeeper and Flight of Fury might be.

Which is why Van Damme starring as himself in JCVD is such a masterstroke. It instantly distinguishes the work from the barrage of generic titles being pumped out by his competition on a near-monthly basis, and shows he's capable of poking fun at his legacy in a way it's hard to imagine many action stars agreeing to. The film opens with footage of Van Damme hard at work on yet another high octane and presumably straight to DVD effort. Presented as a single long take, this opening sequence is cheerily awash with stock action clichés; the hapless damsel, the hero impervious to bullets, punches that miss their intended target by several inches, explosions, shaky camerawork, bad guys felled by a single impeccably-timed karate chop. The scene plays out to the refrain of 'Hard Times' by Curtis Mayfield, a wry choice that is further indicative of the tone that JCVD will be taking.

And it succeeds wholeheartedly. It's nice to see an aging action star not shy from self-deprecation as he enters the hinterland of middle age, and though Jean-Claude still appears as a bit of an egotistical numbskull in interviews, hitting on female reporters and regularly spouting gibberish, in JCVD he comes across as refreshingly and unexpectedly vulnerable. The fact that nearly the entire thing is shot in French certainly helps, as in his native tongue The Muscles from Brussels displays the kind of nuanced acting chops he could never hope to conjure in his heavily-accented English. You find yourself rooting for the underdog Van Damme from the outset, and whereas so many straight-to-video action flicks are entertaining only in an ironic, isn't-this-all-a-bit-of-silly-fun kind of way, JCVD is a definite winner from start to finish.
There are hints of Godard in director Marbouk El Mechri's cinematography, notably in a long straight-to-camera monologue and the odd bit of inventive lighting and camera work, but El Mechri and his DP, the strikingly-named Pierre-Yves Bastard, have a deft touch and it all translates extremely well. Picture quality is sharp and the washed-out colours and jags of unusual lighting lend a further distinctive, hyperreal edge to proceedings.
The soundtrack is also an idiosyncratic but highly successful affair. Gast Waltzing's soaring and robust score recalls an atmosphere of bygone thrillers, and the few well-chosen songs interspersed throughout have mostly been augmented to better suit their milieu. El Mechri himself performs tongue-in-cheek lounge covers of David Bowie and The Kinks tracks that wouldn't sound out of place in a sleepy Belgian cafe, and the 5.1 soundtrack is by turns jazzy, moody and sonorous.
Extra Features
Nothing on the R4, but the R1 release contains 2 deleted scenes, a 40-minute making of and an hour-long tour of Brussels conducted by Van Damme himself, in which he points out his old haunts and 'talks openly about his life and anxieties,' to quote the review on Geeks of Doom.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
JCVD is a layered, emotional and surprisingly engaging offering. It's also frequently hilarious, particularly when Van Damme sends up his lack of film offers or plays on his supposed rivalry with Seagal. For a guy who's supposedly washed up he also shows few signs of slowing down, having recently reunited with Dolph Lundgren for 2009s Universal Soldier: Regeneration in which the pair reprise their roles from the 1992 original, and with a self-penned and directed outing called The Eagle Path due later this year. He also reportedly turned down a role in Stallone's upcoming The Expendables. It would be an exaggeration to say JCVD signals the resurrection of Van Damme's ailing career, but he's appears to have bought himself another decade at least. And he can act! Who knew...

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