March 25, 2009 -- I've been hearing about this critically-acclaimed film “JCVD” for quite some time, so I jumped at the chance to do an advance review for the DVD release (Peace Arch® Home Entertainment will be releasing "JCVD" on DVD and Blu-ray on April 28, 2009). This is a sort of experimental art film, the last venue one would look for stone-faced action movie star Jean-Claude Van Dame (who also goes by his birth name of Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg in this film) to have a starring role. It turns out to be an entertaining action movie parody and the “Muscles from Brussels” does a good job playing a caricature of himself. Set in Brussels, Belgium, his childhood home, the film is filled with movie in-jokes and wry observations about the nature of movies, stars and their fans. This film provides one possible answer to the question, “what would a movie hero do if he were in a situation which calls for a real hero?”
Van Dame, better known for such action films as “Bloodsport,” “Universal Soldier” and “Timecop,” is shown suffering through a meeting with his agent, complaining about so much of the money for an upcoming film being siphoned off in side-deals that there is nothing left for making the movie. Van Dame said he would work for scale if he could work in a real movie studio. He also suffers through a child custody hearing where the opposing attorney attacks the violence in the movies he makes. Van Dame points out angrily that the money for his ex-wife and child support for his daughter comes from those same films. Van Dame's attorney threatens to quit the case if he doesn't get paid immediately. The cash-strapped Van Dame calls his agent and tries to get an advance on his next film, only to find out he lost a plumb role to Steven Seagal, who agreed to cut off his couette (pony tail) to get the role. Van Dame goes to a post office to make a wire transfer of money to pay the attorney and suddenly becomes a hostage in a robbery. What results from this robbery is a kind of cross between “The Wrestler” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” but with a comic, satirical twist.
A policeman sees Van Dame in the window of the post office, closing a steel shutter, and somehow assumes that Van Dame himself is robbing the place. This assumption, which could be blown apart with very little investigation, holds up through the movie for no apparent reason. Van Dame finds himself in the position of hostage negotiator between the inept bandits and the equally inept police. He uses the opportunity to finally have money wired to his lawyer, although that idea backfires on him. One of the bandits, Arthur, played by Karim Belkhadra, is a huge fan of Van Dame's and persuades him to do a high kick, knocking a cigar out of a hostage's mouth. Arthur tries the same stunt himself with comic results (he impressively does the kick successfully in one of the deleted scenes on the DVD). The most dangerous of the bandits, played by Zinedine Soualem of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” keeps threatening to kill everyone. He wears his hair the same way John Cazale did in “Dog Day Afternoon.” Coincidence? I don't think so. The other hulking bandit, the big silent type, is played by Jean-François Wolff.
The bulk of the film takes place in the post office, where it tends to bog down, except for the spirited exchanges between Van Dame and Arthur, who both have some very funny things to say about the movie business. There is also a surreal seven-minute soliloquy delivered by Van Dame looking straight into the camera. Van Dame is seated on a crane on which the camera is also mounted. It lifts him directly out of the movie, above the set high enough to show the movie lights above it. The monologue rambles from discussing the movie he is in (“I really hope nobody's gonna pull a trigger in this post office”) to his drug addiction, to the sadness he feels for people who aren't as fortunate as him. The drug addiction, the child custody problems and other things in the movie have some factual basis in Van Dame's real life. In the monologue he says, “I'm just a regular guy. It makes me sick to see people who don't have what I've got, knowing that they have qualities too, much more than I do.” He cries at this point. This soliloquy, in which Van Dame convincingly emotes is a revelation to many of his critics. It is also done in one take. There is also another interesting Van Dame monologue in one of the deleted scenes on the DVD.
Van Dame is not known for his acting ability, he is better known for his martial arts prowess. Prior to this film, I thought his best performance was in the 1993 film “Nowhere to Run.” Van Dame is one of those action film stars like Chuck Norris, David Carradine and Steven Seagal who are not big stars like Arnold Schwartzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, but who have worked steadily over a long period of time in movies, TV, videos and video games. Most actors can't find steady work, so you don't have to feel sorry for these guys at all. Van Dame's career is not as bad as it is made out to be in this film. He has averaged more than a film a year since he broke into movies in 1984. In “JCVD” he seems to be near the end of his career and he is catching flak from his cab driver and even some of the bank robbers, who complain he looks bigger and better and acts nicer in the movies than he does in person.
The film suffers a bit from its look. It appears to have been shot with film, but it was processed in such a way that it has a black and white overlay on top of the color. This is called a “bleach bypass,” or “bleach skip” process in which the bleach step in the film process is partially or totally skipped. This leaves silver in the emulsion along with the color dyes. This way of processing color film causes increased graininess, distorted colors and an overexposed look to some scenes with a white background, daylight or bright lights in the background. Apparently this look is trendy, but it doesn't really add much to the film, except to make it look a little more like a badly-filmed documentary. The film looks very contrasty and it has a distinct brownish-gray tinge. Perhaps this is part of the satire. Writer-director Mabrouk El Mechri also uses a fantasy-type action scene along with a more realistic version of the film's resolution to show the contrast between the two. There are numerous flashbacks and two very different versions of the early parts of the post office robbery. One is shot from the police point of view and the other later version shows what was actually happening inside the post office at that time. The film opens with a funny extended action scene all done in a single take, ruined by a prop failure at the end. The failure of the scene is exacerbated by directorial indifference to Van Dame's exhaustive efforts.
This is a real departure for Van Dame, but it ought to help his career. Who knew he could act? The film is also very cleverly written and crafted by Mabrouk El Mechri, who doesn't have many films to his credit. He has certainly made a name for himself with this one, at least in the world of film criticism. This film rates a B. The DVD has a lot of features including both English and French theatrical versions (the English version is new) with English, French and Spanish subtitles. There are deleted scenes (with English subtitles) and a theatrical trailer. The DVD also holds digital copies of the film which can be used in portable media players. One digital copy is ITunes compatible (m4v format) and the other is windows compatible (wmv format). These can be transferred directly from the DVD to a computer and from there to portable media players such as an iPod or a Zune, or a similar device like a smartphone. I tried the Windows compatible file and it looks as good on a full-sized computer monitor as it does in small-screen size. The Windows compatible file is about 820 megabytes, while the iPod compatible file is about 70 MB bigger than that. The DVD rates an A.
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