JCVD was the nicest little hardboiled heist movie I've seen in a while. It's metafictional, but not evasive and ironically annoying. Human, but not cloying. It's more Dog Day Afternoon than Being John Malkovich. It's smart. It's tight. It's grounded. It's achingly well-written and well-performed with a green and white, slightly overexposed look that looks pretty nice and reminds me of 1970s crime dramas. And while I think the experience can survive spoilers, I'm glad that I saw it not knowing much about the plot.
In some ways, JCVD isn’t all that different from other Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. Sure he’s Jean-Claude Van Damme and he’s not a cyborg or a legionnaire or twins. But it’s always seemed like Jean-Claude Van Damme was visible in his movies and, like I was saying before, his movies have a simple human core.
The goals of Van Damme's movies have often been small ones compared to the executive decisions of many other action films. Thinking back over his movies, he's often fighting for only at most a handful of people. Saving one person or trying to get back home seem corny compared to disarming nuclear weapons or destroying _____ rings (chose your war of the moment). Then again, these small, human goals are often the very ones central to more respectable art house cinema. Mabrouk el Mechri and Jean-Claude Van Damme set these same kind of motivations for their screen Jean-Claude Van Damme. There are conversations, but there is also kicking.
I'm pleased that el Mechri and Van Damme didn't rely solely on shocking audiences out of their prejudices about Jean-Claude Van Damme. They didn't ignore these prejudices--American or European--either, not with that stunning opening action sequence (1 take!) or the televison spewing clips of Jean-Claude Van Damme's famous "aphorisms" about being "aware" or "1 + 1 = 11." And the reel devoted to Van Damme's improvised fiercely beautiful monolog almost takes back these recycled clips and puts them in a context Van Damme and a sympathetic (in the best sense of the word) el Mechri have control over.
If anyone shouldn't be surprised that an action star turns out to be more than his movies, it should be fans of genre. But we often have the worst prejudices. The younger, more foolish Carol was a total snob about Westerns. Now I'm so excited about The Burrowers and The Good, the Bad and the Weird that it's almost embarrassing. Not to mention my growing collection of Western comics by Bubba Ho-Tep screenwriter, Joe R. Lansdale.
And there's the same simple bravery in Jean-Claude Van Damme's message to the Midnight Madness audience. He sent us all a hug. Cheesy? Maybe. Sentimental? I guess I don't much care anymore. But it's as sincere and as brave as putting your body on the line at 47 to entertain a crowd of fans. So I hug you back, Jean-Claude.
This post originally appeared on a now defunct version of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness Blog.