Story of his life

Jean- Claude Van Damme has made a come­back of sorts, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

RE­DEMP­TION is a pow­er­ful theme in cin­ema, on and off screen. On screen, it is a neat de­noue­ment in the clas­sic three-act struc­ture or in any other screen­writ­ing for­mula. All that’s re­quired is a kiss, a so­lil­o­quy or a fade to black.

An off-screen re­demp­tion can be just as com­pelling: those mon­eyed ac­tors who lose it all in a whirl of drugs, hubris and im­ma­tu­rity be­fore a sec­ond com­ing and re­turn to screen glory.

Mickey Rourke’s re­newal was a won­der­ful thing, al­though his solid per­for­mance in The Wrestler , a pedes­trian, hack­neyed film, was not of Academy Award stan­dard.

Quentin Tarantino has an al­most des­per­ate propen­sity to re­deem the ca­reers of seem­ingly for­got­ten ac­tors, such as John Tra­volta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster and David Car­ra­dine in Pulp Fic­tion , Jackie Brown and Kill Bill . Th­ese were shrewd cast­ing de­ci­sions that showed Tarantino to be an au­teur re­spect­ful of cin­ema’s past, telling sto­ries that were new yet fa­mil­iar.

Jean-Claude Van Damme’s re­demp­tion is some­thing dif­fer­ent. Mabrouk El Mechri’s film JCVD is far more in­ter­est­ing than The Wrestler and not as ex­ploita­tive as a Tarantino movie.

Whether the Bel­gian action star — aka the Mus­cles from Brus­sels, star of such 1990s action fare as Time­cop , Street Fighter and Uni­ver­sal Sol­dier — is able to take ad­van­tage of this smart cin­e­matic op­por­tu­nity, as Rourke ap­pears will­ing to do, is ques­tion­able. In the few in­ter­views Van Damme has given while pro­mot­ing the film, he has de­liv­ered a stream of non-se­quiturs and potty thoughts and ideas.

Yet JCVD, in which Van Damme plays him­self, an action star un­wit­tingly caught up in a post of­fice heist in his home town, has given the ac­tor a con­vinc­ing plat­form on which to dis­play his wares, in­clud­ing a won­der­ful open­ing tracking shot through an action scene and later a shame­less, six-minute im­pro­vised mono­logue.

It also gives Van Damme time for self- re­flec­tion. On screen, Van Damme is on the ropes and looking for not just re­spect ( he’s now los­ing roles to the bloated mar­tial arts star Steven Sea­gal) but a job. His off-screen re­al­ity is lit­tle dif­fer­ent and com­pli­cated by em­bar­rass­ing pub­lic episodes, in­clud­ing one in­stance of ap­pear­ing drunk on tele­vi­sion, and a dire di­vorce in which he lost ac­cess to his youngest son, Ni­cholas, at the age of 13.

But he isn’t get­ting lost in hubris. He re­cently told Bri­tain’s The Sun news­pa­per, ‘‘ I am not a movie star, I am not a great ac­tor like An­thony Hop­kins, who is looking for an award. I am not Ge­orge Clooney, who is looking to be the most fa­mous and sex­i­est, or Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, to be a pow­er­ful self-made man.’’

El Mechri be­lieves Van Damme is sell­ing him­self a lit­tle short, al­though the di­rec­tor, too, is mod­est about claim­ing a Tarantino-like pre­science for pro­vid­ing the Bel­gian with a wor­thy ve­hi­cle.

‘‘ The great act­ing thing about Jean-Claude wasn’t some­thing I came up with,’’ the di­rec­tor says from Paris.

‘‘ I think he was al­ways a great ac­tor but maybe with the wrong ma­te­rial or at least ma­te­rial that he was too fa­mil­iar with. Ba­si­cally Hol­ly­wood uses you for what you’re do­ing or what you’re fa­mous for, and Jean-Claude was more fa­mous for his action movies than his act­ing chops, so ev­ery­body was sur­prised by him act­ing that well [ in JCVD].’’

El Mechri adds peo­ple don’t pay the right at­ten­tion to ‘‘ this kind of ac­tor’’.

Rourke, for ex­am­ple, gave solid per­for­mances in his ear­lier films such as An­gel Heart and The Pope of Green­wich Vil­lage . He didn’t need to show any­one he could act; rather he needed to re­deem him­self in a good film with the right ma­te­rial and di­rec­tor.

Van Damme was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, El Mechri says. He didn’t have an An­gel Heart in his reper­toire. All Van Damme had were high kicks, brand recog­ni­tion in the B-movie mar­ket and an in­creas­ingly wonky pub­lic im­age af­ter drug and al­co­hol abuse.

‘‘ My pro­ducer thought I was crazy to do a film with Jean-Claude Van Damme,’’ El Mechri laughs. ‘‘ It’s a bizarre thing be­cause I didn’t have any doubts about what he was ca­pa­ble of do­ing.’’

Yet the ac­tor be­lieved no film­maker would use him for any­thing other than par­ody. El Mechri says he was for­tu­nate to meet Van Damme at a cross­roads, when he’d com­pleted ‘‘ those bad flicks in Bul­garia, shot in six weeks with poor action and poor scripts’’.

But even at that mo­ment of weak­ness Van Damme ex­pected a spoof, ‘‘ be­cause he’d al­ready made peace with peo­ple think­ing about him as a me­dia clown’’.

‘‘ And just to have a whole crew show­ing him some re­spect gave him the con­fi­dence he needed to be able to per­form,’’ El Mechri says.

The di­rec­tor’s work is ac­com­plished with sharp, know­ing di­a­logue ( in­clud­ing a hi­lar­i­ous ref­er­ence to di­rec­tor John Woo’s part in Van Damme’s ca­reer) and nice per­for­mances and cin­e­matog­ra­phy in a mul­ti­lay­ered story that has only a few lapses.

Un­for­tu­nately for El Mechri, in one re­gard the film’s at­tributes are un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated be­cause of its sub­ject mat­ter. The film is so much about Van Damme trashing his ca­reer and life on screen in or­der to re­make an­other, that audiences tend to ig­nore the di­rec­tor’s achieve­ment.

El Mechri con­cedes every­one’s sur­prise at Van Damme’s act­ing meant ‘‘ they didn’t pay at­ten­tion to the con­cept of the film, which was an action star be­ing stuck in a heist’’.

No mat­ter. The film has been mu­tu­ally sat­is­fy­ing for ac­tor and di­rec­tor.

Will it launch Van Damme on to the act­ing A-list? No. But cin­e­matic re­demp­tion is prob­a­bly sweet enough.

JCVD is in lim­ited release.

Kick in the right di­rec­tion: Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.