The basic premise of JCVD demands that we accept Jean-Claude Van Damme as one of the biggest movie stars in the world. This may be the case in his home of Brussels, where he's one of the few (if not the only) actors to make the transition to Hollywood. While audiences who know him only as the Muscles from Brussels may be slightly surprised by the acting range he shows in this film, they probably won't be compelled by his persistent agony at being so famous, or by the switcheroo the movie pulls by showing such a famous action star at his most helpless.
The plot of JCVD is a pretty simple hostage story. Van Damme, back in his Brussels hometown after duking out a custody battle in L.A., mistakenly enters a post office that's being held hostage by some vaguely defined bad guys. Thanks to the watchful eye of some video store employees across the street, as well as some bad timing on Van Damme's part, the media and the public assume it's him who's holding up the post office. We're led to expect this as well, until about 30 minutes in, when the perspective shifts to Van Damme and his fellow hostages inside the office.
But of course, the movie isn't really about the hostage crisis-- whether by design or by the demands of Van Damme's apparent ego, the movie is all about him, his insecurities, his fame, and eventually even his love for his parents. The movie starts with him on an action movie set, in which he wants to add more nuance to a story that appears to be about him kicking people in the head. In the post office, fellow hostages constantly call upon him to beat up the bad guys; he refuses, either out of pacifism or fear, but it's clear all along that one roundhouse kick would solve everything. And in the movie's ballsiest, and craziest, moment, Van Damme levitates above the set and gives a monologue about the movie he's in, his life, his work-- and the guy actually cries while doing it.
The movie is definitely bold, and raises a lot of questions of what a decades-long career of beating people up has done to Van Damme, who seems like a gentle, if quite self-regarding, guy. But without a well-told story at the center-- the hostage crisis ends about how you would expect it to-- the meta tricks and Van Damme's raw emotion never coalesce. Sure, it's interesting to watch when a guy known for speaking with his fists turns in a credible performance as a real human being. But that's a sideshow, not a movie.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich