Here is a triple-bill for you of films from 2008: Bruce Campbell's My Name Is Bruce, in which the actor, playing himself, is recruited by infatuated fans to fight a supernatural menace; Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, featuring Mickey Rourke in an attempt at career redemption playing a broken-down star desperately seeking either a comeback or a normal life; and Mabrouk El Mechri's meta-drama about a fictional crisis in the life of Jean-Claude Van Damme, which falls conceptually about midway between the other movies.
During the opening credits, Jean-Claude is filming an arduous single-take tracking-shot action scene for a film that looks like it might be a poor man's version of Children of Men. The shot is ruined when a (fourth?) wall collapses behind him, after which the exhausted performer argues (through an interpreter) with a sneering Chinese director that it would be easier at his age if his character could use a gun. Off-set, Jean-Claude is battling in court for custody of his young daughter. The opposing counsel uses Jean-Claude's movies against him, asserting that their violence makes the father a poor role model. The daughter herself doesn't want to stay with her dad. She tells the court that schoolmates make fun of her whenever his films are shown on TV.
We next see him back in Brussels, his cab parking outside the Video Futur DVD shop so he can get some money from a local post office. The fanboy video clerks argue with his female cabbie until a shot rings out. Word soon gets out that the most famous Belgian is robbing the post office, drawing crowds of fans to the scenic street, apparently to root him on, Dog Day Afternoon style. As this is one of those chronologically fractured films, though not radically so, it's only later that we learn what's actually happened: our hero had blundered in demanding his money transfer without realizing that four robbers had already taken everyone hostage. He's forced to cooperate with them, negotiating with the police while trying to convince them to release their hostages. In a moment of personal desperation, he adds his own demand for money to the robbers' list.
As the situation deteriorates around him, the process accelerated by one robber's adulation of him to the disgust of his partners, Jean-Claude has a meta-epiphany. Rather than break through a fourth wall, he rises through a nonexistent ceiling into the realm of filmmaking, where he delivers a soliloquy on issues he feels he owes to a perceived audience. He describes his youthful ambition and idealism, comparing the honor and trust of the dojo to the cut-throat environment of Hollywood while admitting to drug addiction and other failures. Tearing up, he prays that there won't be any shooting so he can have a chance to start his life over again. Finally he descends back into the story, where his fantasy of a heroic resolution is quickly dashed, leaving him in a sort of Seinfeldian predicament as the credits roll....
There are intriguing parallels between JCVD and The Wrestler. Both films deal with "athletes" in decline who hope to make comebacks. Both characters have estranged daughters. Each has a major tantrum in a public place, Jean-Claude's explosion when the post office can't give him money mirroring "Randy the Ram's" conniption at the deli counter. But the differences are more significant. Randy, like Carradine, is at the end of the line, or at the brink of it, while Jean-Claude isn't quite that bad off, no matter how he sees things. Also, Jean-Claude displays more ambivalence toward his medium than Randy does toward wrestling. Although he has an occasional fantasy of how he'd defeat the robbers movie-style, Jean-Claude is not someone who thinks he's living in a movie -- even though he actually is. You get the idea, though. While Randy seems like a man who refused to grow up, Jean-Claude actually seems resolved to do so. That seems to mean doing better films, getting "in a studio" as he demands that his agent arrange. In a parallel subplot, the middle-aged robber who most idolized Jean-Claude is berated by the younger ringleader for being so childish as to watch action movies. As well, this most likable of the criminals also proves to be the loosest cannon and probably the most dangerous, if never the most menacing of the crew.
The writers seem to see an affinity between Jean-Claude and the criminal element. Our hero spends more time talking with the robbers, perhaps inevitably, than with the hostages. The hostages receive little character development; the only standouts are a mother who resists being separated from her child, and a hapless victim who annoys the fanboy robber by laughing at his remarks to Jean-Claude. This guy ends up serving as a demonstration model at the robber's insistence for Jean-Claude's ability to kick a cigarette out of a man's mouth. The robber wants to imitate that little trick, with unsuccessful consequences for the hostage in one of the film's funnier scenes. Of course, by the time the film ends Jean-Claude has become a criminal and pays a price for it. That twist made me think that executive producer Van Damme may have envisioned his character's fate as a symbolic penance for all the wasted years and bad movies of his past. If so, however, Universal Soldier 3 may prove to be a parole violation.
The more meaningful comparison with The Wrestler, of course, is in the category of comeback films. While no one was going to nominate him for an Oscar, Van Damme got generally good notices for his performance. I actually think his big soliloquy was one of the weaker moments of the picture. He tries too hard to emote in it, and the scene strikes me as both too scripted and as a kind of confession that the writers couldn't work out what they wanted to do with Jean-Claude as a character within the robber-hostage framework. But overall, the best proof of how Van Damme has developed as an actor is to watch the English-language version of the film included on the DVD -- until he stops speaking English.
The theatrical version of JCVD was a bilingual film. Van Damme spoke English on the movie set, in the courtroom, and when he spoke with his lawyer and agent, and spoke French otherwise. I can't judge his French dialogue, but the years have given his voice a character that rings true when he speaks English. He's able to express himself reasonably well in his second language, and he manages the dialogue with ease. That's what makes the full English-language version so infuriating. Van Damme did not bother to dub his French-language scenes into English for that version. Those scenes are dubbed by an "actor" whose voice doesn't come close to approximating Van Damme's. I usually prefer to watch the subtitled versions of foreign films, but this time I broke my rule because, for me, the Van Damme experience means hearing him speak English. But I had to switch to Theatrical once it sunk in that Van Damme, for whatever reason, did not follow through as he should have for his big comeback effort. The fact that the voice clearly is his in the early, original-English scenes only makes the later imposture more pathetic. If you want to appreciate what Van Damme tried to accomplish here, stick with the Theatrical version at all costs, or listen to the dubbing long enough to give Van Damme credit where it's due.
JCVD is a dark film, bordering on sepia through the cinematography of Pierre-Yves Bastard, and directed to take full advantage of an architecturally dramatic part of the city. As far as my ears could tell the Euro cast was a good one, especially Zinedine Soualem as a creepy criminal ringleader with a Marilyn Manson-gone-to-seed look who might belong in a B-movie himself, and Karim Belkhadra as Jean-Claude's criminal fan.
This is not a great film, and not even the best execution possible of the high concept, but Van Damme keeps it watchable throughout. Here's hoping it earns him better jobs in the future.
The following trailer includes some deleted scenes that are included in the DVD, though I didn't get around to watching them on the Albany Public Library copy I borrowed. It looks like they would've opened the film out more than necessary, but that recreation of the infamous brawl at Scores looks like fun.