The opening scene of JCVD plays out like a typical Jean-Claude Van Damme action flick from the '90s, as the Muscles from Brussels single-handedly takes down an army of bad guys with kicks and punches. Suddenly, the movie set's wall topples behind him, in effect knocking down another wall: the one between actor and audience. And that's pretty much the crux of JCVD, a movie about Jean-Claude Van Damme starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as Jean-Claude Van Damme.
At a custody hearing, the actor is hammered about his violent movies by an attorney, who runs down a list of offenses, including "laceration," "crushed under the wheels of a car" and "death by strangulation." But Van Damme's daughter doesn't even want him around, since her friends make fun of her every time one of his movies pops up on TV.
So the cash-strapped actor returns to Belgium for some rest but gets tangled in a robbery at a local post office. Outside, police and a growing, supportive crowd think Van Damme is responsible for the crime. But inside, he's actually one of the hostages, trapped in a very real situation that resembles a plot from one his crappy films.
Mixing a dash of Dog Day Afternoon with a sprinkling of Charlie Kaufman's meta surreality, JCVD throbs under Van Damme's gleefully self-aware performance and Mabrouk El Mechri's zippy direction. (A few scenes repeat from different perspectives, giving the film more panache than any of Van Damme's "classics.")
And it's a kick to watch Van Damme poke fun at his screen persona - bitching about losing roles to Steven Seagal and addressing his temperamental reputation ("He still thinks we're making Citizen Kane," groans a director after the star complains about a fumbled scene). Plus, he lets his co-stars get in on the ribbing. "I pictured him taller, but he's short," says one awestruck fan. "I like you better onscreen," a cabdriver tells him.And, after glimpsing a recent photo of Van Damme, a police chief says, "Did he dye his hair?"
Still, JCVD's intense hostage scenes could have come from any one of Van Damme's films (and as he helplessly stands by, you keep waiting for him to kick some ass). But none of his other movies includes a long, single-take monologue in which the actor faces the camera and talks about his multiple marriages, drug use and the attitude he developed as a big-time action star. "It's not a movie; it's real life," he says tearfully. The rub here is that it is a movie. But it's unlike any Van Damme movie you've ever seen.