JCVD (2008)

This movie started when a producer had reached a deal with Jean-Claude Van Damme to play himself in a movie. Knowing that director Mabrouk El Mechri was a big fan, he asked him to read the script. The problem was that the screenwriters thought that Van Damme was exactly who he tried to portray to the public — an action hero and personality given to delivering long speeches on television appearances that touch on personal well-being and the environment in a strange Zen koan combination of French and English. In other words, the writer though Jean-Claude was a clown.

The producer offered El Mechri the chance to write and direct, which he agreed to only if he could actually meet with JCVD first. He didn’t want to waste months writing something that Van Damme could veto or not give everything to. Luckily, the actor got the concept immediately and the film was a go.

Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a version of himself, called JCVD in the credits, who is out of his luck. Our of money. And in a custody battle where his own daughter rejects him in court. He goes back home to Brussels where he is still a hero but he is obviously a man on the edge.

At a post office, a robbery begins after JCVD is unable to get a wire transfer for money that he desperately needs. As he’s taken hostage, the police mistakenly believe that the actor is behind the crime, despite him protecting the other hostages and trying to negotiate with the police. But when he asks the police to send $465,000 to his lawyers, it’s unclear as to whether he’s become part of the criminals or he’s just trying to gain their trust.

The media gathers around the event, as well as the police bringing in JCVD’s parents, as we see TV footage of the actor speaking in his strange patois about all manner of subjects on French TV.

That’s when this movie becomes genius. The camera and Van Damme lift above the set and he begins speaking about the absurdity of the situation, as well as his career, the loves of his life and his reliance on drugs. The actor made El Mechri swear not to tell anyone about the content of this monologue, so this was called the X scene on set. There was a black curtain drawn around Van Damme, who is ironically a shy person, and when the actor hit the line about not wanting to die, the crane was lowered back onto the set. Only the actor knew what he said until they saw the dailies.

This scene is incredibly tough to watch, as Van Damme is tougher on himself than his harshest critics, saying, “When you’re 13, you believe in your dream. Well it came true for me. But I still ask myself today what I’ve done on this Earth. Nothing! I’ve done nothing!”

Interestingly enough, Van Damme has always been able to say cut on his own movies, but for this movie, he made an agreement that the director would have the final say. So much of the film is ad libbed as well, such as the scene where the taxi driver is abusive to the star. JCVD was told to be nice to her, no matter what she said.

Van Damme finally uses his celebrity to become friends with one of the robbers, but a battle ensures between the robbers and when the police hear a shot, they come in guns blazing. Finally, the last surviving robber takes JCVD hostage. In his head, he imagines that he hits one of his trademark kicks to save the day, but in real life, he just shoves the man into the cops and is arrested himself, sent to jail for a year.

At the end, he’s teaching the other inmates martial arts when his mother brings his daughter to see him. It’s an emotionally brutal scene as we see Van Damme begin to shake and nearly collapse. It’s more real than anything he’s ever done, yet in the confines of the unreal world of cinema. Yet this meta moment touched me and I found a tear streaming down my face, something that has never happened when watching any of his films before.

I loved this movie. It’s easily the best film of my JCVD week, but that’s because it’s knowingly breaking the cycle of his films. It’s a credit to the actor that he allowed the public to see him in such a raw way here.

You can watch this for free on Tubi.

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