Great acting can come from the most unlikely places. A year ago, few could have predicted that an innocuous beauty like Anne Hathaway would become an Oscar favourite by playing a hard-edged addict in Rachel Getting Married. Or that Kristin Scott Thomas could be a contender by acting in French and making herself look impossibly dowdy as an ex-con who killed her child in I’ve Loved You So Long. Or that the brutish Mickey Rourke would be tagged for a nomination as a beast with a heart of gold in The Wrestler. Or that there is a serious actor behind the chiselled brawn of international martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme, a.k.a. the Muscles from Brussels.
A former kick-boxer, karate champion and ballet dancer, Van Damme is famous for dispatching opponents with acrobatic brutality, typically with a 360-degree flying kick to the head. Since his breakout role two decades ago in Bloodsport, he has fought his way through over 30 films—from Hard Target, John Woo’s first Hollywood movie, to Timecop, which grossed $100 million worldwide. But he has never cracked Hollywood’s A-list, and his work has often veered into B-movie camp. One of his cheesier fight scenes, in Sudden Death, had him polishing off a femme fatale dressed as a Pittsburgh Penguins mascot by feeding her into an industrial dishwasher.
Clearly, the man’s talents are legion, but acting has never ranked high among them—until JCVD. In this ?ctional drama, Van Damme plays himself, as a celebrity who becomes the focus of a media frenzy when he gets caught up in a hostage-taking incident. Directed and co-written by French filmmaker Mabrouk El Mechri, JCVD is a meta-movie, a multi-genre piece that works as an ingenious thriller, a sardonic satire, and a bittersweet character study—allowing Van Damme to subvert his image and bare his soul with excoriating candour. A surprise hit at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s one of the year’s best films, and Van Damme’s performance is a revelation.
Shooting in a gritty desaturated style, El Mechri tells the story with a non-linear, switchback narrative that keeps the audience guessing. After waging a losing custody battle for his daughter in a Los Angeles courtroom, Van Damme returns to his hometown of Brussels, jet-lagged and distraught. Fed up with his career, and peeved at losing roles to Steven Seagal, he begs his agent to get him a Hollywood movie, which he would do for scale, rather than waste his time on another low-budget action picture shot in Bulgaria. Scrambling to pay off his custody lawyer with a wire transfer, Van Damme gets implicated in a robbery at a Brussels post office. And as a mob of fans and media converge on the scene, he’s assumed to be the culprit.
Van Damme performs two virtuoso sequences in JCVD, each filmed in one extended uncut shot. The first is a three-minute action scene that runs over the opening credits as he shoots, stabs, punches, kicks, jumps and hurls his way through a gauntlet of thugs armed with machine guns and flame-throwers—until the camera pulls back and we see him on set telling his cynical Asian director that one of the stunts misfired. “It’s very difficult for me to do everything in one shot,” he says, gasping with exhaustion. “I’m 47 years old.” The other sequence shows Van Damme launch into a tearful seven-minute soliloquy about his life that is both mesmerizing and heartbreaking.
As the camera finds a world of pain in his rugged features, he talks about his childhood as a scrawny kid who dreamt of being a Hollywood star. He talks about his many wives (four), about the celebrity privileges he feels he didn’t deserve, and the cocaine abuse that almost ruined his life. “When you’ve got it all,” he says, “when you’ve been around the world, and been in all the hotels, when you’re prima donna of the penthouse, you want something more. And because of a woman, because of love, I tried something. I got hooked. Van Damme—the beast, the tiger in the cage, the Bloodsport man—got hooked.”
His confession may appear mawkish on the page, but it’s truly moving, and even more powerful because it’s wired to a time bomb of a fictional plot. Although JCVD is no action movie, we keep waiting for it to turn into one—for Van Damme to stop playing Hamlet and save the world with his signature roundhouse kick. It’s a great tease. By the time it’s paid off, he has already aced the audition, by beating his own image into the ground, and showing he deserves that Hollywood shot.