Seeing the trailer for this, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of YouTube spoof, or something made by The Onion – one of those fake trailers with no corresponding movie. Could there really be a film in which video superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme, aka ‘The Muscles from Brussels’, holds up a Belgian bank? Incredibly, there could – but JCVD is no spoof. Instead, it’s an immensely watchable post-modern thriller, in which the martial artist formerly known as Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Varenberg, down on his luck after losing a part to Steven Seagal (“He cut off his pony tail,” his agent grimly explains), returns to Brussels to spend time with his estranged family, only to become embroiled in a bank heist which may end more than his career.
Holed up with hostages and bank robbers, and surrounded by armed police, slathering reporters and mystified fans, 48-year-old Van Damme realises he’ll need more than his considerable karate skills to get out alive. So far, so bizarre; but then, an hour into the film, the action pauses, as Van Damme breaks the ‘fourth wall’ to deliver an emotional, single-take soliloqy, an appeal-cum-confession, either to the audience or to God, in which he reflects at length on the highs and lows of his twenty-year career, drug problems, complicated love life (he divorced his third wife, Gladys, in 1992, had a child with his fourth wife, divorced her, then remarried Gladys in 1999) and place in the world. It’s a coup de cinema, invoking the spirits of Fellini, Truffaut and Godard – no, seriously – which, like the rest of the film, shows two sides of Van Damme few have seen before: the human being, and the skilled actor.
Cynics may doubt the film’s sincerity, detecting the whiff of a fallen star’s vanity project, despite a darkly funny, partly improvised script which doesn’t always show him in the best light. But there’s no mistaking the gusto with which director/co-screenwriter Mabrouk El Mechri shoots the siege, imaginatively photographed by the brilliantly-named Pierre-Yves Bastard. Ultimately, what could have been a direct-to-video curiosity becomes a highly unusual and strangely compelling collision of Being John Malkovich and Dog Day Afternoon.