Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here.
By now, you most likely know what this is, and wheter or not you’re interested in it. I’m thrilled Vern got a chance to check it out, though, and if there’s any review of it I’ve been waiting to read, it’s this one.
This is one of those things that almost seems too good to really exist. Did a talented French director really convince Jean-Claude Van Damme to play himself in an arty hostage thriller, giving him his best production values in years, one of his best movies, and definitely the best acting performance and most personal artistic expression of his career (so far)? Okay, I can believe somebody would come up with the idea, I can sort of believe Van Damme would be interested, but it’s hard to believe that they really found the money, really made it, really executed it this good. 2008, I love you.
This is the story of Jean-Claude Van Damme (Jean-Claude Van Damme), an action star getting too old to do long takes and depressed because he’s in a losing battle for custody of his daughter. The worst part: his daughter says she doesn’t want to live with him because everybody makes fun of her every time he’s on TV.
Jean-Claude goes home to Brussels, where he plans to stay with his parents and get his life back together. But he needs to get some money to send to his lawyers and just happens to choose a bank that’s in the middle of being robbed. So the thieves take him hostage, but instead of seeing him as a threat like they might in most action movies they just think this is surreal – holy shit, that’s Jean-Claude Van Damme! One guy in particular is excited and gets him to kick a cigarette out of a guy’s mouth. I mean, what would you do if you had Jean-Claude Van Damme hostage? I wonder why he didn’t try to get him to do the splits on a wall like he did in CYBORG?
The feel is more art movie than Van Damme, at times it’s even kind of pretentious, which you gotta kind of appreciate in a Van Damme movie. Never thought you’d be able to accuse him of being pretentious. The storytelling is very confident, bordering on cocky, some good non-linear tricks and unfolding the story from different perspectives. The soundtrack is nice and soulful, lots of horns used in the score, a throwback to action movies from the pre-Van Damme era.
As you’ve probaly seen or heard, Van Damme is mistaken as the one robbing the bank, and a crowd forms outside to cheer him on. I’m not sure what this DOG DAY AFTERNOON element of the story is supposed to be saying exactly, but it shows how despite the “washed up” status of a guy like Van Damme there are still people who want to root for him. It might be harder to find them here in the US but I completely believe that he is a hero in Belgium as “the guy who left this shithole” as they say in the movie. And that’s exactly what makes this a great movie for Van Damme: it’s one that only he could’ve ever done. As you know I’m more into the Seagal pictures than the Van Dammes, but that’s the reason why: he developed his own style, he made his movies personal and weird, he made movies that couldn’t have really been recast as Van Damme movies or done legit with Matt Damon or somebody.
And now Van Damme has done that in spades. The movie is fun because of this idea of seeing the life of an aging action star, but the things that really make it great are specific to his life and his movie persona. I don’t think he’s really had a custody battle, but everything else pretty much comes from his life. There’s a great scene that almost seems like it could’ve come from a documentary where he argues with his agent about the movies he’s up for. He can get lots of money but he can’t get a role that makes him happy – he wants to take less money for a studio role (he supposedly did JCVD for free).
The part that surprised me most (SPOILER) almost seems like a gimmick out of a Spike Lee movie: suddenly Van Damme floats up above the bank, showing that it’s a set. He looks directly into the camera and for several minutes does a heartfelt monologue talking to his fans about his career, his womanizing, his drug problems, his love of karate. Now, alot of non-action fans will claim this is Van Damme’s first real acting performance. If you’ve watched a bunch of his DTV shit though you know he’s been trying, for example he was good as a junkie scumbag in UNTIL DEATH. But this is a better movie and a better performance. It turns out he’s way more likable when speaking in his native tongue and (I’m guessing) getting to improvise more. And you know what, I knew Van Damme wanted to be a real actor but I didn’t know he’d get the chance to do a monologue about not feeling he deserves his success. I didn’t think I’d see him cry real tears on film. He even talks about things in his personal life I never knew he got shit about. Some of his defenses aren’t exactly convincing, but the fact that he’s baring his soul like that puts you on his side.
Holy shit, this is a real movie! They really made this!
This is a miracle of a movie but to be honest I don’t think it’s the action fan’s dream you might expect. There’s only one serious action sequence, the classic opening set to Baby Huey’s “Hard Times.” Van Damme is filming a war movie and it’s a CHILDREN OF MEN style continuous shot. Man, I only wish he was doing movies like that these days. The only thing that shot has in common with his real movies is the crappy skipped frames and the director who doesn’t seem to be paying attention.
There’s a scene where a lawyer lists off acts of violence in Van Damme’s movies – hopefully somebody who knows his filmography better than me can tell me if those are specific references or not. But I don’t get the impression director Mabrouk El Mechri has an undying love for action genre, just a European’s admiration for Van Damme. In the movie Van Damme talks about his movies with embarrassment, the fictional movies they mention don’t seem very believable, and my apologies but it is my duty as the author of SEAGALOGY to point out that the Seagal running joke doesn’t make sense (it has to do with him cutting off his ponytail for the first time, but he doesn’t actually have one in many movies including some of the more iconic ones like UNDER SIEGE and ABOVE THE LAW.) There’s some funny discussion of John Woo, which I loved, but it made me wonder if El Mechri would only admit to watching a John Woo movie and not, say, a Sheldon Lettich.
I don’t really take offense though because the movie clearly presents Van Damme as an underdog character for you to root for, and I respect that it’s not a comedy. The laughs it gets out of worshipful fans are relatable, not mean-spirited. You get a kick out of seeing some dudes from a video store freak out over seeing Van Damme cross the street. Shit, that’s how I felt when I saw Seagal playing guitar. But it’s too bad El Mechri isn’t more of an action fanatic, because the one thing that would take this from an A to an A+ would be a kickass action setpiece at the climax. We’ve seen what he did on the set, we’ve seen the cigarette trick, and after the monologue we know what he has to prove to himself. It’s the perfect setup for the mechanics of a serious action movie to kick in. And then they don’t.
But oh well, this is still a very unique and entertaining movie and I’m thankful for its unlikely existence.
Originally posted at Ain’t-It-Cool-News: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/39221