Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Van Damme Day Afternoon

Just finally caught up with last year's JCVD on DVD, a satirical yet empathetic look at the Muscles from Brussels that stands head and shoulders above anything else he's ever done. Van Damme plays a fictionalized version of himself, who, after his career falls apart and he loses a child custody battle in Hollywood, returns to his homeland for some rest and recuperation. Once there, he inadvertantly finds himself smack-dab in the middle of a bank heist situation. The bumbling criminals decide to use Van Damme as their pawn, making it look like he is the one holding innocent civilians hostage inside and demanding a ransom.

Van Damme gamely allows himself and action films that have been his bread and butter to be liberally made fun of: his agent tells him he lost a part to Steven Segal because the other promised to cut off his ponytail, and his wife's lawyer cites the ways in which he's killed fictitious bad guys over the years to build a case against him. While locked up in the post office, one of the crooks makes him demonstrate a fake-fight move on another hostage. However, the film also provides a great deal of empathy for the faded star, such as a Godardian scene in which he rises above the set and delivers a heartfelt autobiographical monologue directly to the camera. To see man who once acted pretty much exclusively with his fists and feet let his guard down and give a real performance is something of a revelation. His haggard face sometimes resembles Humphrey Bogart's as his day gets progressively worse.

It's interesting how many films in 2008 were about old, big-screen tough guys getting back into the saddle for one last ride, bittersweetly reflecting on their piss-and-vinegar days. Clint Eastwood atoned for the slew of casually racist urban vigilantes he'd played over the years in Gran Torino, Indiana Jones settled down, got married, and passed the torch in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Mickey Rourke found such a kindred spirit in The Wrestler's Randy "The Ram" that it was hard to tell where the character ended and the actor began. While not quite on the level of these films, JCVD is perhaps the most nakedly earnest out of the bunch; one minute winking at the camera, the next minute pleading to it on its knees. Though it occasionally plods during its lengthy plot-mechanics banter between the criminals and the police, it's still a profoundly moving study of a man that most of us had long since dismissed.