Features | Time and the Hour: For the Melancholy Mastery of Jean-Claude Van Damme

By Christoph Huber

“I’m too old for this shit,” sighs a slightly disgruntled Jean-Claude Van Damme after the amazing and amusing one-take action scene launching JCVD, the remarkable contraption directed and co-written by sophomore French director Mabrouk El Mechri. This tragicomic meta-movie ingeniously weaves a dash of fact into tongue-in-cheek fiction, with surprisingly moving results. As the title would have you expect, it’s the Muscles from Brussels providing the persona and autobiographical elements to anchor the tale of an action superstar down on his luck accidentally stumbling into a tense kidnapping situation, with results both absurd and thoughtful. Yet Van Damme is also the force behind the unexpected emotional sweep that elevates JCVD into territory far beyond the amusement promised by its hilarious, buzz-generating trailer.

The front-runner for scene of the year, if not the millennium, comes in an unbroken seven-minute-shot, with “Jean-Claude,” up close and not shying away from tears, delivering a bare-it-all-monologue about his life and hopes, his mistakes and ideals. As the word to accompany the (long-take) opening deed, it’s the most stunning of the film’s many resourceful uses of mirroring devices. But, as Van Damme confided in his beloved Zen franglais in an interview right after the Cannes market premiere, it is also a moment that hopefully will transcend language barriers, since JCVD is his first starring vehicle in his native language, a risky move for his designated theatrical comeback: “The movie is in French, so I don’t know if it’s going to be that big. It is going to be subtitled, so the German people or the English people or the American people or the Japanese people will not see the same—or they’ll not understand the same…but they’ll see the feeling! They’ll see a feeling, because when I talk up there it doesn’t make too much sense except in my crazy head. In it, this is something real.”
Real for real. Although already the credits set the playful tone—the Gaumont Logo literally gets a kick, cartoon-style—midlife melancholia starts to seep in around the edges almost from the get-go. The opening action-film-within-the-(action-)film set piece allows for a bravura over-the-top display of martial-arts moves by split-master Van Damme (or “Van Damme,” the mirror-hall effects of hollow celebrity culture and its toll are getting a diligent work-through here, so let’s just dispose with the split-the-difference quotation marks and say JCVD). But critical on-set banter (with heartfelt in-jokes: someone opines that without JCVD John Woo would “still be shooting pigeons in Hong Kong”) and a faintly Keatonesque failure with the wrap-up both point to woes plaguing the ageing action star, despite his seemingly imperturbable façade. At 47, he actually is becoming too old for this shit. Indeed, Van Damme has begun to develop the wrinkles and weather-beaten looks of a character actor—not that anybody was looking, especially in the direct-to-video grave that seems to be the ‘80s action stars’ current fate. But his brilliant deadpan demeanor throughout JCVD suggests not only character chops, but also a wizened worldview worthy of the film’s disillusioned downside.

But for all the fun developments in El Mechri’s flamboyant concoction, there is serious counterpoint. After his on-set setback cements the career-low, JCVD’s Los Angeles custody battle is introduced farcically, with a clever in-joke about the crucial clash and confusion of private and public persona to boot: The prosecuting attorney presents ample, violent video evidence of the Van Dammage previously wreaked to prove dad’s lack of parental qualification. The joke’s on him, but—furthermore spurned by his teenage daughter—the actor’s disappointment and fatigue feel real. The journey home does little to alleviate the depletion, whether emotional, financial (even the ATM is in on the conspiracy), or physical. In a last-minute attempt to secure funds to pay his lawyers, jetlagged JCVD walks into a post-office just to find himself in a bank-robbery/hostage-crisis reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s (fact-based) Dog Day Afternoon (1975), down to a would-be John Cazale (touchingly played by Zinédine Soualem). Soon enough, there’s a police cordon complemented by cheering crowds waving placards reading “Free Jean-Claude.”

Ah, freedom. How it is truly attained, even at a paradoxical price—in one of JCVD’s many dialectical set-ups—is what the battered Belgian finds out during the long haul that follows. So far, this is only the set-up: conceived as a structural pretzel, the film systematically unveils narrative, thematic, and emotional complications. Spoiler territory shall remain untrodden, suffice to say that the diverse discoveries to be made within include a cogent treatise on what it means to be honest in the media age, the peerless presence of “Kahrahdeen,” and ambivalent insights about the effects and affects of international star status. Few film moments in recent years have been as humorous-yet-despairing as JCVD’s helpless exhaustion at the endearing demands (and clumsy self-attempts) of Soualem’s dedicated fan to demonstrate his cigarette-out-of-mouth-kick. Down to the poignant finale, El Mechri makes good on some major ambitions, probably most succinctly expressed in the film’s chapter headings, which not only include variations on the proverb about the stone and the egg (which might as well be a koan of the Van Damme Zen dojo), but resort to Shakespeare: “Time and the hour runs/Through the roughest day.”

He may be no Macbeth, but certainly this is the time and the hour to consider the career of Van Damme (like those of his peers) as something monumental, not least because JCVD is based on its loving consideration: it’s the kind of genuinely great tribute that may well enthuse people who hitherto scoffed at the Muscles from Brussels. But it would be wrong to only approve ironic distance from the axiomatic and absurd heights of the heritage of ‘80s action icons, mostly relegated to a critical void of too-easily-asserted, cursory, and superficial “sociocultural significance” due to lack of hipness and general suspicion of reactionary tendencies. By contrast, what makes El Mechri’s film is appropriate sincerity paired with equally equitable, gentle self-mockery befitting the more ludicrous and far-fetched aspects of the genre that made stars out of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Van Damme, or Seagal. (Connoisseurs know that beyond plot developments or acting decisions, factors like production circumstances can be even, uh, further fetched. Might JCVD’s affectionate running gag about JCVD losing parts to Seagal because the latter was willing to sacrifice his ponytail be some Solomonic lark pertaining to the little-known fact that Van Damme made three co-productions with Aruba—thus claiming a third of the island’s film history—whereas Seagal could only muster two?)

In most cases, the former stars’ output in the recent, roughest years were absent from cinemas. Could JCVD be the artistic crest of a rebound? Stallone revived his signature roles in somewhat astonishing ways—surely his Rambo (2007) tells you as much about American self-hatred as There Will Be Blood (2007), but in half the time, while substituting pure action for artistic pretension, for better and worse. Elsewhere, Vern’s book-long career consideration Seagalogy seems to bespeak an interest in finally unearthing some of the allure of those action heroes taking the last proletarian stand of iconic multiplex entertainment. In a way, they were the last human axioms of cinema, at least in the tradition of the infamous claim for Charlton Heston made by Michel Mourlet in his classic Cahiers essay “In Defense of Violence.” (There may be a few circumstantial exceptions, but for the most part Hollywood now regards fantasy gnomes and merchandise as its axiomatic material.) Their mythic posturing was ideally supported by bare-bones narratives, often ridiculed and often enough full of ridiculous details: Who could forget the villain’s ultimate self-defeating taunt in Death Warrant (1990): He (“The Sandman”) kicks open a furnace door to scream “Welcome to hell!” in front of impressively blazing flames—into which he is promptly kicked by Van Damme.

Within the group, Van Damme’s career stands out for its strong ties to Hong Kong auteurs and an apparent willingness to stretch as an actor (or, maybe just to become one, which he now has certainly achieved). Additionally, he started in the mode closest to abandoning narrative entirely: Bloodsport (1988), the cult classic that really put him on the map, a film that needs little pretext for its series of duels (what plot there is mostly vindicates the less-is-more approach). In the Bruce Lee tradition, this fighter is more about presence and stance rather than the arc of the character. Curiously, Van Damme’s first real role was in Corey Yuen’s Karate Kid knock off No Retreat, No Surrender (1986) about a boy who idolizes Bruce Lee, guided by visions of the master (recently, Jean-Claude had similar cameos in French and Turkish films, only really). The film immediately established the Hong Kong connection, and proved clairvoyant otherwise, too: While the opening credits announce “and Jean-Claude Van Damme as Ivan, the Russian,” in the closing crawl he is miraculously billed one “Karl Brezdin.”

Did this prodigious gaffe inspire a trend in the Belgian’s career? His pronounced interest to move beyond mere action formula—his dream project, a Jacques Brel biopic—was unsuccessful, but a series of dual roles at least allowed him to try, thanks to his most frequent collaborators: Sheldon Lettich in Double Impact (1991), and Ringo Lam in Maximum Risk (1996) and Replicant (2001). (The struggle between public and private persona in JCVD can be seen as continuation of the trend, the film as “biopic.”) By emphasizing humanist values in his fine fighter saga Leon (1990), Lettich had established a fresh direction for Van Damme after desultory choices: In 1989 he bumbled between the Bloodsport retread Kickboxer, amusing not least for his simulation of drunken dancing, and the interminable swansong of that venerable institution, Cannon Entertainment, the incoherent sci-fi-opera Cyborg.

Certainly, the bulk of Van Damme’s 90s career—colorful, campy detours like Street Fighter (1994) notwithstanding—remains a wondrous whatsit, as a series of recognizable filmmakers work out different ways to accommodate the Van Damme persona, which couches its righteousness in that mostly expressionless manner de rigeur for the action hero, but is also atypically romance-inclined.

The centerpiece are probably two excellent thrillers showing the occasionally inspired craftsman Peter Hyams at his peak: The superior fantasy Timecop (1994) is close to the comic-book-wit of co-producer Sam Raimi’s epochal Darkman (1990); Sudden Death (1995), a taut ice-rink-Die-Hard, boasts among other things creative use of kitchen utensils in a fight to the death with a henchmen hiding in a cuddly Pittsburgh Penguins mascot costume. Together with Van Damme’s directorial debut The Quest (1996), a pumped-up, enjoyable return to the duel formula realized at the height of his coke addiction, they are sandwiched by unmistakable work of three Hong Kong stylists coming to America: Woo’s Hard Target (1993), Lam’s Maximum Risk, and two truly incredible films by mad master Tsui Hark, Double Team (1997) and Knock Off (1998). Double Team in particular, with co-star Dennis Rodman sporting a new hairstyle every time that he appears and a wildly eclectic mix of elements (even including Patrick MacGoohan’s The Prisoner TV series), reaches for a pantheon position in the theatre of the absurd, a deal sealed by its colosseum-finale-cum-most-outrageous-product-placement-ever. (No surprise Tsui never made it in the US, especially as the market for this kind of entertainment decreased overall.)

In the ‘90s, Van Damme even resorted to his only sequel, following Universal Soldier (1992), his only collaboration with another action icon—let’s hear it for a delicious Dolph Lundgren. The film was also the best thing Roland Emmerich ever did (whatever that means), and it is symptomatic in context as Emmerich would soon upgrade exactly to those big-budget bloats that funnel off the money for smaller, more personal action efforts. Universal Soldier: The Return (1999) sees a return of the good “Unisol” to battle a HAL-ish computer so bent on self-preservation he unleashes superpowers of cybernetic special-soldier conformity—not much of a movie, perhaps, but it sure is inspired film industry allegory. Even as Van Damme’s return in the fourth installment lifted the Unisol cycle back into cinemas, he was on the way out himself.

Most of his subsequent releases went straight to video in most territories, although it varied with regional dedication to old-school action. In particular, the former eastern block held out, maybe having to do with its countries now providing money and locations: Lam’s awesome In Hell (2003) was shot in Bulgaria. This peak collaboration might well have deserved the title of the director’s Hong Kong classic Prison on Fire (1987), even as it consciously updates—like Replicant—tropes of the actor’s earlier films, while pondering passive resistance: “A unity of people can bring down any system.” Too bad the producer resisted Lam’s suggestions for Until Death (2007), letting hack Simon Fellows mute the potential instead: In Lam’s hands, Van Damme’s corrupted, heroin-addict cop (“You’re not even a human being,” cries a prostitute after bad sex and a spanking on a billiard table) should have provided fecund material for this auteur double team to further their existentialist exploration of the Van Damme persona’s dark side. Meanwhile, that other stalwart Lettich certainly provided some passive resistance against levelling trends: The Order (2001) may lack The Zohan’s sophistication about the Palestine conflict, but provides no-frills nonsense and an axiomatic meeting to end them all, pairing Jean-Claude’s heir of a Christian Soldier with that presence that “constitutes a tragedy in himself,” the late Charlton Heston.

By 2006, Lettich’s deliberately paced, tormented-bodyguard thriller The Hard Corps felt like a jump back in time, as by then Van Damme’s films increasingly had succumbed to widespread visual hyperventilation, leaving him—by now physically ready to provide some time-worn gravity—little chance to anchor his presence in muddled plots. What’s still fun in the cheap train-virus potboiler Derailed (2003), where a splashy reliance on Avid editing effects only occasionally lapses into cubist montage incoherence, has turned into a shakycam blur by the time of Fellows’ embassy siege drama, Second in Command (2006). In between, the revenge shocker Wake of Death (2004) is as under-written as it is over-directed, while frequently lapsing into torture-porn. It’s one of the few instances where Van Damme’s axiomatic nature is effectively undermined: Simon Yam as his opponent seems to have trapped him in failed Category III Hong Kong gross-out fodder. Still, it makes for instructive comparison with the remarkable achievement of El Mechri. By pitting JCVD the axiom against JCVD the person, JCVD deconstructs and deepens the understanding of both. It is nothing if not a triumph of humanism. Meanwhile, Van Damme’s next film, as actor-director, is to be called Full Love.