Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Greatest Van Damme Comeback!

America loves its underdogs. America loves to watch the big man fall. What does America love more? Watching the underdog reach the top, fall to the bottom off, and then make the improbable comeback. Tiger Woods: we wanted him to succeed; he got too good so we wanted him to lose. Boom! Injury hits and we’re back in his corner rooting for the comeback. Lance Armstrong: a classic David verus Goliath story. We watched and cheered as he won an unbelievable 7 Le Tour de France titles. But somewhere in there we wanted to tear him down. He’s on the juice, he divorced his wife; he’s a cheat and an asshole. Three years off and trying to pull off the impossible and all of a sudden we’re dusting off our livestrong bracelets. Why is this? What is it about people that allows them to turn on their heroes and stars so easily; what lets us go from support and admiration to mocking and laughter? I don’t know. That’s for the really real philosophy blog. But this story, this tale is exactly what we’ve done to one of our favorite action heroes of the 80’s and 90’s, Jean-Claude Van Damme.

I suppose Jean-Claude Van Damme has always been something of a joke. Even when I was growing up and admiring everything about the man – his martial arts skills, athleticism, and smoothness with the ladies – I always found something comical about the way he handled himself in movies, whether it was his excessive yelling in slow motion (Bloodsport)

or his drunken-master dance moves (Kickboxer). But I was a faithful JCVD follower from my first few frames of Bloodsport all the way up to Universal Soldier: The Return (thank you Mom and Dad for not agreeing with the MPAA’s “inappropriate for children under 17” guidelines). But to most people I guess that’s what Van Damme is: the Belgian Steven Seagal - an action star who was good at his one thing and now his main purpose is to serve as the punch line in a Friday work email: Van Damme It's Friday!

But there is definitely more to the Muscles from Brussels than early ‘90s Cracker Jack action films. He has seen his fair share of ups and downs in both his professional and personal lives. Van Damme went from being “the man who brought John Woo to Hollywood” (Hard Target) to being that guy who did movies with Dennis Rodman and Rob Schneider. He went from wife 1 to wife 5 (and eventually back to wife #2). He went from happiness to depression and back and forth again. His life is a complicated one that has only recently found direction and solace. And with it comes one of the most powerful performances of the last year, if not at least the most sincere.

Simply, JCVD is a fictional movie based on the life of the real JCVD. A major star the world over, JCVD struggles to maintain a relationship with his family and make his marriage work. His career is becoming more of a joke and as it spirals down the toilet of Hollywood along with his bank account and happiness. Upon return to his hometown in Brussels, Van-Damme stops in a post office to pick up a check. There he gets caught in a robbery in progress and, due to his being seen through the window by local law enforcement, is assumed to be the perpetrator. Of course suspicions are only confirmed when people learn of his recent custody hearings and increasing debt. What follows is comedy and character study/redemptive film; a parody with a heart if you will. The opening scene of the film provides us with enough action to show that the muscles still has the speed and build, but also serves as a contrast to the rest of the movie. This film doesn’t take place on the battlefield, but rather in in a tense hostage situation and in the broken heart and failed dreams and hopes of Jean Claude Van-Damme.

At one point the Time Magazine had raved that Van-Damme had given "…the finest, most scab-pulling performance seen this year, " nothing short of Oscar® worthy. Perhaps a nod would have been nice, but with the past year’s talent, and a similar “fall from the top” film in The Wrestler, I don’t think Jean-Claude would have taken the statue home anyway. Is this the best movie ever? No, it certainly falls short in some areas. For instance, we could have used more examples of Van-Damme’s spiral downward and seen more of his dismal life that brought him to this point. Is it the greatest performance ever? Not quite…but JCVD breathes life into himself and we love him for it. He is reduced to a "normal" guy filled with fears, regret, dreams, love. Celebrity is deconstructed through a man who has known all its sides and ugly faces.

I won’t ruin it but this movie really does well involving a lot of different elements to tell a story, at one point using an honest and perfectly placed “confession” from its main character. At first you may think it’s out of place or cheap tricks, but give it a moment and you will be swept off your feet by a man who built a career by knocking people off theirs. Mickey Rourke had The Wrestler, Travolta had Pulp Fiction, and now JCVD has…well, JCVD! - - 4 reels out of 5

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