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