Saturday, December 13, 2008


Jean-Claude Van Damme's latest film toys with your expectations of a Van Damme film. The Muscles from Brussels has built his career on cheap titillation, but JCVD is no action flick. It's a portrait of the Universal Soldier as a victim and a fraud.

When the body-builder followed Schwarzenegger to Hollywood in the '80s, he began a long series of forgettable action movies that brought him fame if not acclaim. Now he returns to Belgium and plays himself, a star in miserable decline.

When Van Damme stumbles into a bank robbery, the stage is set for his usual heroics: roundhouse kicks, gunplay and innuendo. Instead, extremely long takes and inconsistent punch-landing erode Van Damme's aura of invincibility. The confused, wounded masculinity on display would make even Mickey Rourke blush.

The film's emotional center is Van Damme's awkward, tearful monologue about his life and career. It's an astonishing bit of acting that oscillates between sparkling improvisation and and bungled cue card-reading (Van Damme mispronounces the word "penthouse"). This abrupt binge of self-doubt would have derailed a lesser film, but self-doubt is the very heart of JCVD, and the hope for redemption through ass-kicking vanishes amid the whimpering.

JCVD's treatment of violence contrasts starkly with Hard Target or Death Warrant. Director Mabrouk El-Mechri deconstructs the vengeful, redemptive hero, so ingrained in American cinema, and reveals a quivering mass of insecurity, regret and powerlessness. Van Damme's return to Europe is more than just a geographical shift: the violence in JCVD is senseless and demoralizing, where in a Mel Gibson film it would be an apotheosis.

Europe has been blunt in criticizing America's proclivity for violent intervention. Here, in the crying face of Jean-Claude Van Damme, is European cinema's rebuttal to America's failed military solutions.