Jean-Claude Van Damme (himself), an out of luck actor, is out of money, his agent can't find him a decent production, and the judge in a custody battle is inclined to give custody of his daughter (Saskia Flanders) to his ex-wife. He returns to his childhood home of Brussels, where he's still considered a national icon. When he goes into a post office to receive a wire transfer, he finds himself in the middle of a robbery and hostage situation. The police believe Van Damme is responsible for the crime and Van Damme finds himself acting as a hero to protect the hostages, as well as negotiator. Van Damme is forced to play a different kind of hero by accepting responsibility for crimes he didn't commit and the life mistakes that he made.
No Retreat No Surrender, Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Cyborg, Death Warrant... throw a large pepperoni pizza and some girlie mags into the mix and you have a reliably realistic portrayal of the Australian teenage male’s Saturday night, mid-1980’s. Trust me.
Above-the-title-credit on all those films went to Jean-Claude Van Damme and he was The Man. Commentator Clive James once described the atypical '80s action hero as looking like 'a condom stuffed with walnuts" and Van Damme was arguably the fittest, and most athletically credible, of all of them. Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo reincarnation was already old; Arnold Schwarzenneger sold out to Hollywood way too fast; Chuck Norris was ultra low-brow; Steven Seagal’s 'best’ still some ways off. But 'The Muscles From Brussels’ (as he became known after a career as a full-contact fighter in underground matches all over Europe), knew that, in dark suburban living rooms the world over, teenage boys wanted to pause and rewind unfettered violence and he delivered it with glistening, abs-of-steel glory. He provided his core audience with the essential 1980 action movie/home video experience – visceral, bone-cracking confrontations with superhuman elasticity in a pre-video-game world.
But Algerian-born, French-based filmmaker Mabrouk El Mechri 's cutting satire JCVD does not look at the man in his prime. It is 20 years later, and the once glorious athlete Jean-Claude Van Damme is now a man almost broken. Mirroring precisely his real life journey since his Hollywood career went off the rails, JCVD plays JCVD – a haggard shadow of his former self, struggling for industry credibility after a well-publicised cocaine addiction, and short on cash. He is jetlagged, just off a plane from Los Angeles where he has lost the most important battle of his life – a custody hearing for his daughter (Saskia Flanders).
The Muscles enters a suburban bank in his hometown of Brussels and finds himself thrust into the middle of an armed robbery. It is the sort of B-movie construct that would have led to a classic Van Damme moment in a career long since gone. With a swift kick to the throat or granite-like palm to the nose, Van Damme circa 1985 would have finished off the nasty trio of bank robbers in balletic, wonderfully-bloody style and taken points on the sequel. But the shrivelled 47 year-old who finds himself at the centre of the heist has no answers, only memories; his desperation drives his (in)actions, his weakness easily exploited by the ruthless criminals (Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra and Jean-Francois Wolff).
The highlight of the film comes mid-robbery. As the increasingly-desperate hostage situation develops and the gathered crowds outside the bank chant his name, Jean-Claude stares deeply into El Mechri’s camera and contemplates his life, his career...his worth. The single take is an extraordinarily intimate cinematic experience. It is a moment of pure humanity caught on film; a man pleading for a clarity to his life that he is unable to provide for himself, and it is heartbreaking. There is no doubt it comes from the heart – Van Damme is just not that good an actor; few are.
There are many sly elements in JCVD that make it wonderfully worthwhile. The film explores the cult of fandom, gently skewers the kind of police procedures that only happen in the movies (the hostage negotiators are sent into the bank – in their underpants) and takes aim at the fragile, fetid nature of Hollywood representation.
But, with his pre-JCVD career floundering in straight-to-video D-graders, it is Jean-Claude Van Damme that triumphs most of all. I doubt the professional and personal deconstruction the film allows Van Damme will lead to a career revival Mickey Rourke-style, despite it being an even more forthright onscreen catharsis. One thing is certain: it has ensured Van Damme will be remembered as an introspective, thoughtful and altogether more profound individual than anyone who ever watched him split a skull would have thought possible.