The redemption of "the Muscles from Brussels" starts here.
Having been a lifelong martial arts movie fan, it goes without saying that I've seen many of the films of one Jean-Claude Van Damme, aka "the Muscles from Brussels," and anyone who's seen even a sampling of that filmography can tell you the guy's flicks are a mixed bag at best. With his body hair-free, rippling-muscled physique, sometimes incomprehensible French accent, and pretty-boy looks during his prime (most notably in LIONHEART and DOUBLE IMPACT), Van Damme's vibe always struck me as much more homoerotic than I cared for in my martial arts heroes.
But I didn't complain too loudly because I had an on again/off again girlfriend in the late 1980's and early 1990's who dug him so much that I was guaranteed to get ridden until my dick was practically broken off at its roots if I took them to his latest film, so I'll always be grateful to him for that. Movies like BLOODSPORT (1988), KICKBOXER (1989) and TIMECOP (1994) ensured Van Damme a place on video rental shelves and cable TV programming schedules for years, but no one really took him seriously for what I perceive to be two reasons:
- His questionable command of the English language.
- The fact that his movies were either lukewarm or outright crap, but never once truly kickass ; BLOODSPORT is hobbled from kickass status by being a very by-the-numbers tournament movie — if you've seen even three martial arts flicks, you know what I'm talking about — and by a truly awful music video-esque chase scene featuring one of the worst songs in movie soundtrack history that brings the film's action to a screeching halt.
JCVD is not in any way an action movie, but is instead hinged upon the interesting conceit of Van Damme playing himself, now an actor who has fallen from grace thanks to an inevitable waning in popularity and the drug scandals that kept him in the tabloids. As his career is steadily sliding down the toilet, he must also contend with a bitter child custody battle, and his odds of winning dwindle as he's portrayed by his wife's attorney as an unfit parent for allegedly exposing his daughter to his violent movies, and his daughter's own statement of wanting to live with her mom so she won't be made fun of anymore by her friends and schoolmates. Looking weary and beleaguered beyond his then-forty-seven years, a defeated Van Damme goes home to Brussels to regroup, but as he goes to accept a much-needed cash transfer at a local bank, he unwittingly walks in on an armed bank robbery and hostage situation in progress. Things go from bad to worse as the robbers fix things so it looks to observers like Van Damme himself is responsible for the whole mess, and the situation escalates into a taut no-win scenario where the internationally famous action icon is utterly at the mercy of a trio of gun-wielding criminals, and his every action (or inaction) holds the fate of the innocent hostages in the deadly balance.
As the story unfolds, Van Damme has several moments of soul-searching and introspection that really allow him to show his range and sensitivity, and I defy you not to be moved, especially during a reverie to himself that briefly takes him out of the held-at-gunpoint drama so he can address the audience directly. The poignancy of his words and the hang-dog resignation in his delivery are amazing, and the words are lent a great deal of lyricism by being spoken in silk-smooth French.
The whole film is terrific from start to finish and is in every way the antithesis to Van Damme's earlier "action figure cinema" résumé, with an ending that's refreshingly realistic and sobering, especially if you're aware of the man's career and its pitfalls over the last decade or so. Bravo, Jean-Claude. Seriously, man. Bravo. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.