We start on Van Damme’s latest film shoot, a low budget direct-to-DVD deal where resources are so limited, our star has to perform elaborate five-minute action set-pieces in one take (‘I’m 47 years old!’ he complains). A custody battle takes the muscles back to Brussels where he hopes to dig up some funds (his credit cards are all maxed), but when he gets caught up in a post office heist, the police believe he’s behind it, sparking a hostage situation, live TV coverage and JCVD fans swarming outside in support of their hero.
The film is so bound up in self-referential intertextuality that it could have undermined the whole project: you assume that Van Damme has agreed to parody himself so mercilessly because (as the film makes painfully clear) he needs the money, rather than having any interest in its artistic merit. But in a pared down, Talking Heads-style monologue, Van Damme floats up out of the action to talk candidly to his audience about finding fame, ex-wives, drug addiction, and the question that really haunts him: why is his life privileged over other people’s? Has he done anything to deserve it? We never thought we’d be moved by anything Jean Claude Van Damme submitted to celluloid, but with tears rolling down his cheeks and real pain in his voice, it’s the weirdest and most affecting part of the movie.
So: is JCVD a worthwhile exercise? It’s certainly a clever, strange and inspired idea, but is it a good one? Yes, it is. El Mechri pitches it perfectly, the film neither taking itself too seriously nor depriving itself of a point by playing it just for laughs. Credit to Van Damme for laying himself so bare, acknowledging both his career shortcomings and using real parts of his life in the fictional plot (there was a custody battle, though over a son, not a daughter). Personally, we never really cared much for Van Damme. But almost 20 years after the very peak of his career, here’s a film he can be proud of.