“Who knew he could act?”

That seems to have been the question the reviewers of JCVD have been asking themselves—as have, no doubt, the film’s enthusiastic viewers. The “he” to whom they are referring is none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme (JCVD)—the star of the movie and also its subject.

The acting question is, in fact, central to this funny and very moving film. Van Damme has traditionally starred in B-grade action movies where his physique, physical condition and skills at martial arts seem to have been the primary qualifications for his leading roles. That he can act—can give an authentic portrayal of an intelligent, sensitive actor nearly past his physical prime who is unable to dislodge himself from the muscle-man niche to which he has been assigned by the Hollywood machine—is a surprise, and the surprise is an essential component of the plot.

But other questions need to be asked as well, such as: Who wrote this fabulous script which considers its self-referential nature with such gentle irony, but also creates a compelling and sturdily freestanding story? And what genius gave the entire project its lovely film-noir feel, which contrary to what one might have expected, makes it feel not film-noirish, but rather entirely real? (The answer to these latter two questions seems to have a good deal to do with a French writer, actor and director named Mabrouk El Mechri, with whose work I was previously unacquainted, but for whom I will certainly watch in future.)

JCVD is set in Belgium, in the home town of the fictional Van Damme–to which he has returned owing large sums of money to the U.S. government and just having lost a custody battle in California. To his deep sorrow, and her apparent regret, his young daughter has chosen to live with her mother full-time, despite her love for him, because she can no longer stand the way her classmates tease her about his strong-man movie roles. When he gets a phone call (during a cab ride that can only be based on a real incident, it is so apt and funny and true) to say that his cheque to the tax department has bounced, he gets the driver to stop and goes in to the post office to wire money to his U.S. lawyer. There he walks into the middle of a robbery involving three gunmen and half a dozen hostages.

Implicated in the robbery due in part to the machinations of the villains and in part to his own reputation from the movies, Van Damme is also the hero of the tale to the townspeople who have come out in droves to watch the incident unfold–and even to one of the hostage-takers (who insists on a kick-boxing lesson from the film legend). To the locals, JCVD is the home-town boy who has made good. Even his mom and dad come by to argue his inherent virtue and obvious innocence to the police (whose tactical manouevres are based, in one of the film’s lovely ironic touches, in a video store).

By the end of the stand-off, and the movie, Van Damme has revealed how deeply wounded his eponymous character has been over the course of his career by his inability to move beyond stock figures and into more dignified, dramatic roles. JCVD gives him and/or his character the opportunity he has been missing, and the results on both real and fictional levels are impressive. In the showing I went to, the audience broke into spontaneous applause as the credits began to roll, and I felt like joining them.

I want to watch this funny, poignant movie again—although I think I may first have to suffer though some of Van Damme’s action thrillers so I get the in-jokes I missed the first time. My inclination to seek out examples of a cardboard representation based on respect for a three-dimensional performance may be the reverse response to what the film envisions, but I expect it is an outcome that Van Damme–both real and fictional–would appreciate.

(JCVD is in French with English subtitles, and is rated R.)

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