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The Best of 2008: 'JCVD'

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JCVD (2008)


Along with my #1 pick on this list, this film contains a very refreshing premise and a unique outlook on an unlikely figure. Practically 10 years after Legionnaire, his last best cinematic vehicle that at least had the fortunate luck of getting off the ground despite its inability in securing a wide theatrical release, martial arts superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme still proves that he has a far greater acting ability than many of his action star counterparts. As in the case of Legionnaire, the film JCVD does not need to cloud its contents full of martial artistry to prove its points. Van Damme has had mixed success in his career, as he seems to acknowledge publicly from time to time, from drug use on and off the screen to marital problems, from strong accomplishments as an actor in well written film such as 1993's Nowhere to Run and the aforementioned Legionnaire from 1998, to odd/inconsistent (supposedly drug induced) 'phoning in of performances' as seen in flops like 1994's Street Fighter and 1998's Knock/Off. With an intent to start anew through Legionnaire, Van Damme has done some admirable work as an actor (he did have formal training in France along with infamous formal training in Karate in his home country of Belgium) in intriguing, but cinematically flawed pictures such as 2003's In Hell and 2007's Until Death. However, there is no denying that this film is his comeback.

Director Malbrouk El Machri invents a funny situation any celebrity can supposedly get entangled into any day, anywhere. Supposedly like Van Damme, if you were an actor who was having difficulty in his career, had trouble keeping trustworthy contacts, and more importantly, had a child that you wanted to regain custody. It seems plausible that anyone would mistake you for robbing a bank in some sheer moment of desperation. The real robbers tip this illusion to their advantage, and then this begins a subtle form of hilarity. El Machri paints a wonderfully postmodern tale of failure, regret, and redemption through a type of Orson Welles-F For Fake inspired 'mock'-u-drama (as opposed to docudrama) combined with a Jean-Luc Godard inspired sense of freeform cinema. Although Jean-Claude maybe playing himself, he is certainly exposing his soul like no other allowing himself to be mocked by the story and characters, welcoming very funny improvisational things to happen to Mr. JCVD, and opening every door to the man's anguish, sadness, and even embarrassments.

However, his seething portrait of himself is not without his fans and even enemies. One of the robbers admits to being one of his biggest fans while his leader does not care about anybody or anything but winning. The most impressive scene in the whole film comes when JCVD literally floats into the set's overhead stage lights and lets out a 6 minute monologue about everything he wishes to say before he may die in this bank/post office. The fact that the film is willing to dish to the audience the possibility that this Hollywood figure may not even survive as if it were really happening is deliciously satirical. For all that JCVD accomplishes, it's great to see people who didn't think that Van Damme could act proven completely wrong. The surprise must have been so great that Time Magazine listed Van Damme's performance in JCVD as #2 of the Top 5 great performances by Male Actors of 2008 after Heath Ledger.