Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Christmas Gift.

24 December, 2008

Time to go to the fridge and serve myself a slice of humble pie. This is what I wrote about JCVD when I first heard about it:

This trailer does look pretty cool but why him? Hell, even if I was impressed by the most lackluster action hero who ever lived, when was the last time he had a hit? Surely someone like The Rock or Jason Statham would be a better fit. Or if they wanted to play the “washed-up movie star” card, somebody of his generation with a bit more substance?

I am in shock over the fact that I wrote those words. Yes, Van Damme’s action movies are awful. Yes, I’ve never thought of him as an actor in the past. But all that changed this morning when I sat down to watch JCVD for myself. This is a film that a small group of people have been championing while the rest of us have been too arrogant and dismissive to accept the idea that Van Damme could have anything positive to contribute to world cinema.

The film begins with Van Damme filming a one-take action sequence involving the usual explosions and gratuitous killings. After the shot is done, he complains to the ambivalent director that it’s too difficult for him to shoot the scene in one take (He isn’t young anymore after all.) This wonderful opening is done entirely in — you guessed it — one take. It is a lovely moment, and one that is more cinematic than any Van Damme film before, but best of all: There’s plenty more where that came from. We’ve never seen the actor in a world so artful as this one. Director Mabrouk El Mechri’s vision is self-conscious but never overcomes the action (Wes Anderson should take note.) Cinema is a visceral art form; Everything the viewer sees and hears should try to overwhelm no matter how “real” your story is. It’s what separates film from theatre.

Moreover, when examining these kinds of one-man shows, it is important to ask yourself if you are in awe of the performance or of the film itself. For example, obviously There Will Be Blood would not work without Daniel Day-Lewis, but it’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision that makes the picture so special. On the other side of the token, a film like Patton would be utterly forgettable were it not for George C. Scott’s tour-de-force performance. For my money, most of the prestige films of this season fall into the latter category. Milk is okay but isn’t particularly cinematic; It needs its strong cast to work. The Dark Knight is only special because of Heath Ledger’s performance. I have yet to see The Wrestler but I will be shocked if Aronofsky’s direction does anything more than photograph the acting which again will carry the movie on its own.

Rourke’s warts-and-all performance has everybody talking, and while I have no doubts that he deserves the attention, it’s a shame that Van Damme is being virtually ignored by the pre-Oscar awards madness. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be right up there with Rourke or Penn or Pitt or Jenkins. In one stunning moment, Van Damme is sitting with his fellow hostages in the post-office that has been sieged by a gang of thugs. Suddenly, everything stops and the stagelights are brought down right behind the actor, and he proceeds to deliver a piece of acting as raw and honest as anything since Brando’s tear-filled eulogy to his dead wife in Last Tango in Paris. And again, it’s not a piece of theatre as these films tend to be, it’s a piece of cinema. This moment calls into question the reality of the entire picture: We are aware that we are watching a film but just how honest is Van Damme’s depiction of himself? Is he acting or is this really who he is? This mind game is more characteristic of Peter Greenaway than Jean-Claude Van Damme. What the hell is going on here?

Viewers will be reminded of Dog Day Afternoon and I’m sure the link is deliberate. Although nothing ever clearly indicates to the masses that Van Damme is holding up the post-office, they instantly eat it up. It reminded me of when Wesley Snipes was wanted for tax evasion; my English professor at the time took his actions as a call to arms, like he was leading some sort of revolution against bureaucracy and the IRS. Whether we like it or not, movie stars aren’t ordinary people. Otherwise they wouldn’t be movie stars. And whose fault is that, really?

I honestly haven’t been more moved by any film this year. With the exception of In Bruges, all the supposedly great pictures of 2008 have had something missing that has held them back as works of art. But not JCVD. It’s the kind of film I dream about but rarely encounter. It is truly a wonderful Christmas gift. See it.

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