The passing of years is never easy for the action movie star. The engorged muscles start to wane, the march of time makes your on screen enemies irrelevant, and a new generation of fans sniggers at your once flinty glare and still sketchy English. You can either retire and use your legacy as a springboard (see Schwarzenegger, Arnold) or revisit it in the name of excessively bloody nostalgia (see Stallone, Sylvester). Jean-Claude Van Damme, the aptly nicknamed Muscles from Brussels, may have found an unexpected new outcome: self-awareness.
In the French independent release JCVD, Van Damme plays a version of himself that draws on his personal circumstances. Making direct-to-DVD action movies in Eastern Europe, this Van Damme is a tiring actor borne down by repetition and his faltering reputation. The daughter he's fighting a custody battle for in a Los Angeles court opts to live with her mother because whenever her father is on television the girl is ridiculed by her friends. The mother's attorney simply enters Van Damme's back catalogue as evidence of his paternal unsuitability.
When he arrives back in Belgium, Van Damme unwittingly walks into the hold-up of a post-office when he tries to retrieve a wire transfer. It is a situation from one of his own films, but he can't rescue the hostages and the police assume he has snapped and committed the crime. “How did you develop your triceps?” asks one of the robbers, starstruck even as he points a gun at Van Damme.
Co-writer and director Mabrouk El Mechri references Dog Day Afternoon (one of the stick-up artists even resembles the late John Cazale's mournful Sal) as he cleverly mixes the conventions of action films and a commentary on Van Damme's own flaws. At the start of the movie Van Damme complains to an uninterested director, “It's very difficult for me to do everything in one shot. I'm 47-years-old.” But for El Mechri he delivers a six-minute monologue to camera, musing on the transaction between a movie star and his audience. It contributes to a worthy performance, neither satirical nor self-satisfied.
Van Damme has had a strange journey since I met him in 1994, when journalists were ushered onto the Gold Coast set of the ludicrous Street Fighter to interview Van Damme about the somewhat less ludicrous Timecop. It was the commercial peak of his career and he excitedly boasted of the martial arts epic he planned to write and direct. “Reggie Maher is going to co-star,” he declared. It was only when The Quest came out – and flopped – that I realised he meant Roger Moore. Comfortable obscurity was beckoning, but JCVD suggests he may have a second act in him.