Jean-Claude Van Damme has a new film. A film that made heads turn in the arthouse community. No joke, I swear. Ever since the first trailers of JCVD surfaced people took notice and eagerly awaited a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick, many of them for the first time in their lives. It gets even weirder when the first critics of the film were unanimously impressed. Rightfully so, it seemed.
Even though Van Damme is a Belgian actor who made it big in Hollywood, not too many Belgian film fans are what you'd call proud of our one and only famous Hollywood film product. Van Damme is not known for choosing quality cinema and even though I'm still interested in a few of his films, this has more to do with the directors behind those films (John Woo, Tsui Hark) and not so much with Van Damme's presence.
I haven't seen too many of his films myself, which probably made me a little less weary of watching JCVD, though it was really the concept of the film that caught me right away. JCVD is one of those films that linger outside the world of cinema, blending reality with fiction. The film stars Van Damme, playing Van Damme, making fun of Van Damme and showing off a whole new Van Damme.
The film itself pokes a lot of fun at Van Damme's media personality, his personal life as well as his movies and action movies in general. Apart from the first scene, there's no real action to be found in the film itself and as the film progresses, a more tragic side of Van Damme surfaces. While it could've easily fallen apart right there, Van Damme himself is actually impressive at playing himself and makes the film work on both comedic and dramatic level.
Visually Mechri is quite eager to show off. From the first scene on, the film is composed of long takes and shot in a desaturated - often bordering on sepia - filter. It gives the film a lot of flair and makes it a lot easier to watch than those B-action flicks. Mechri is able to keep the visual flair high for the entire duration of the flick, making it a real visual joy.
The film is well acted, with Van Damme himself claiming much of the attention. Even though there are some pretty tough scenes, he pulls them off without flinching. Supporting characters are well-played and provide some pretty funny moments, especially the old woman driving the taxi.
Even though there's plenty of humor and a lot of it is aimed at Van Damme himself, a real sharp edge is missing in favor of more tragic and/or dramatic undertones. This strand reaches its climax in a scene where Van Damme is lifted from the scene to shoot off an impressive monologue. It shatters the movie façade, but with a film like this that was only to be expected. I usually don't mind myself and found it very powerful here, but I guess many prefer to be kept inside the story of the film.
There are little to no weak points. The soundtrack could've been a bit more characteristic but never irritates and even though the story itself is quite simple the film more than makes up for that with witty humor, some interesting timeline jumping and a solid dramatic base.
JCVD is a film that polishes the image of Van Damme while placing Mechri on the map as a director. It's a solid film, accomplished and well ... "aware" of its qualities. Falling somewhere between the world of commercial and arthouse cinema, the film may have some trouble finding an appreciative audience, luckily there's been plenty of positive buzz. A good recommendation, especially for people who can't stand Van Damme.