As an international movie star, Jean-Claude Van Damme is something of a contradiction: his name is synonymous with popular action cinema, yet his last major theatrical release was Universal Soldier: The Return in 1999. The distinction between fame and actual success lies at the heart of JCVD, an intermittently inventive cross between Being John Malkovich (1999) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) in which Van Damme plays himself, a fading celebrity with money problems, who arrives home in Belgium after a humiliating custody hearing in Los Angeles, only to discover that bad events really do come in threes. Firstly, he learns that he has lost a role to Steven Seagal because his long-time rival has agreed to cut off his pony-tail. Secondly, his credit cards are rejected when he attempts to withdraw some cash. Thirdly, he wanders into a Brussels post office during a robbery and is taken hostage, with the villains forcing the jet-lagged Van Damme to pretend that he is actually committing the crime. The situation escalates into a stand-off between the robbers and armed police, with cheering fans clamouring for a glimpse of their hero.
Appropriately enough for a film named after its leading man, the greatest strength of JCVD is Jean-Claude Van Damme himself. Performing largely in his native tongue, Van Damme delivers a surprisingly naturalistic and often vulnerable performance, maintaining his affable public persona as he poses for photos with his fans, but projecting genuine frustration when realising that custody of his pre-teen daughter is slipping away, or when his agent offers him yet another direct-to-DVD project to be shot on the cheap in Bulgaria, crushing his hopes of a comeback in a studio film. The hilarious opening sequence finds the Mussels from Brussels on set, kicking and punching his way through an army of disposable extras, before telling the unsympathetic Hong Kong director: ‘It’s very difficult for me to do everything in one shot, I’m 47 years old!’ A later scene breaks the fourth wall, as Van Damme delivers a monologue directly to camera, admitting to his personal and professional failures, which include drug abuse and broken marriages.
The film falters whenever Van Damme is not centre stage, as his fellow hostages and the police officers are not fully developed characters and, of the robbers, only lookout man Arthur registers thanks to his childish enthusiasm for Jean-Claude’s oeuvre – a scene in which he coaxes his idol to perform one of his signature high kicks is a comedic highlight. Writer-director Mabrouk El Mechri adopts the ‘answers first, questions later’ structure favoured by the American independent filmmakers who tried to ape the success of Quentin Tarantino, attempting to build tension when he should be mining the satirical potential of his casting coup. However, his script plays knowingly with the conventions of the action genre, while his downbeat 70s-style soundtrack selections are just right for a movie about an ageing martial arts star exiled from the Hollywood mainstream in the digital effects era.