JCVD: An introspective satire of uncommon intelligence and grace (***** out of 5; Grade: A)

When the listing came out for the Toronto Film Festival, I was shocked to hear a Van Damme movie would be screening.

JCVD was best described by a Toronto critic as being the sort of film you’d expect if Charlie Kaufman was an avid fan of Bloodsport. A surrealist romp of blazing wit, insight and heartrending honesty, it features the one-time action star Jean Claude Van Damme playing himself (or a version of himself): mocked in the industry and labelled a bad father in court during a custody battle. He returns to Belgium to unwind after the disastrous (but blackly funny) trial before he takes on yet another mundane action film (the scene in which he negotiates with his agent, is an insightful if heartbreaking moment when he reveals his desire to sacrifice financially in order to improve the film in question; it shows how something that must have started off as a quest for fame and fortune has become one for respect).

He is a local hero Belgium, accosted by taxi drivers and store owners for photographs and autographs. But the trip devolves into a fascinating comedy of errors as a bank heist breaks out, complete with a sticky hostage situation, with all signs pointing to JCVD as the perpetrator. As the police, media, and a battalion of adoring fans descend upon the scene, the question arises: could the cash-strapped Van Damme (who just lost a film role to Steven Seagal because Seagal offered to cut off his famed ponytail) be so desperate to raise the money to fight for his daughter’s custody?

The first act unfolds from several perspectives, reminding me a bit of another clever heist film, Sidney Lumet’s under-appreciated Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. It may seem a bit like a gimmick at first, but on reflection one realizes the significance in getting the audience to appreciate the varying perspectives surrounding the man (in order to separate him from the myth), and the value in seeing cause and effect reversed. This is probably the strongest portion – emotionally – of the movie, when we get to peer behind the superstardom veil of Van Damme (the 3rd act, by comparison, feels a bit flat – even if the final frame is gold).

The heist puts things into overdrive without ever once becoming an action flick. The effect of this brush with celebrity on everyone – from the cops, to the spectators, to those inside the bank – is fascinating and brimming with comic genius at nearly every turn. The scene when Van Damme is very politely asked to flick a cigarette out of a hostage’s mouth with a kick is gold; it gets several shades more brilliant when someone else tries to replicate the feat. My personal feat was not falling to the floor from my seat in hysterical laughter.

The revelation here isn’t that the French can make a genre-defying, razor-sharp film, but that a) one could be fashioned around Van Damme, and b) he would live up to his end of the bargain. It is a brave, intelligent, honest, charming performance, from the exasperation during the custody hearing and his disarming desire to placate fans, to his naked regret and worry about the meaning of his life, should it end badly during the standoff.

This brings me to the most daring and divise scene in the movie: JCVD’s floating, piercing and brutally introspective monologue. It is a riveting moment, whether you agree with its use or not, and indisputably the high-point of Van Damme’s career. I’ve always liked the man, in an off-hand kinda way (Universal Soldiers, Timecop and Lionheart are pretty sweet flicks), but this pushed the love-and-respect meter through the roof. It has to go hand-in-hand with the comebacks of 2008: Robert Downey, Jr and Mickey Rourke, neither of which were as surprising as JCVD.

The film opens with a furious, stylish (if mechanical) action sequence done in one seamless shot. JCVD, winded and out of breath, complains that he’s 47 and can’t do these things in a single shot. The aloof director deadpans “He still thinks we’re making Citizen Kane.” By the time the end credits rolled, writer-director Mabrouk El Mechri had come as close to anyone will probably ever in making a Sidney Lumet film written by Charlie Kaufman.

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