I have spent the past week in my hometown, visiting with family after my last-ever exams at McMaster University. The university life may be more exciting, but sometimes, you just can’t beat rest and relaxation at home. And Sault Ste. Marie has many worthwhile attractions: beautiful northern landscapes, historic landmarks, and small-town simplicity.

Needless to say, I have been watching a lot of movies on my computer.

Last night I saw JCVD, an action movie that apparently garnered critical acclaim in independent film circles upon its 2008 release. Personally, I’m just a sucker for explosions, so that didn’t matter. All I needed was to check Rotten Tomatoes to ensure the movie was not too terrible. With the venerable film-review aggregator’s seal of approval, and expecting a feast of pyrotechnics, I fired up the 96-minute French-language film, but what I witnessed were explosions of a completely different kind: Jean-Claude Van Damme dropping acting bombs. The man has chops.

JCVD seems to have a fairly conventional storyline for its genre: a muscly hero caught up in a bank heist is mistaken for the evildoing mastermind, and must find a way to save his fellow hostages. Nothing out of the ordinary. All right, there’s a small twist: the man is Jean-Claude Van Damme playing himself. This is unusual, but not too far from, say, Schwartzenegger’s self-parody in Last Action Hero. Yet the twists continue: Jean-Claude Van Damme is shown losing custody of his daughter in flashbacks, paralleling the real-life court battle for his son; he complains bitterly about being snubbed for a movie role in favour of Steven Seagal, among other symptoms of his conceded washed-upness; and at the climax of the movie, he delivers an emotional six-minute, single-take confessional-style monologue dwelling on his past drug abuse, his failed loves, and the human condition. Now we’re in unusual territory.

The movie features a performance from Jean-Claude Van Damme with surprising emotional heft.

JCVD is not a great movie, but it makes up for it by being an interesting one. It’s not quite as action-packed as Jean-Claude’s typical fare, with most of the action taking place in the first scene, an extended take from the set of a fictional upcoming flick which ends with Van Damme butting heads with an insouciant upstart filmmaker (sadly, not literally). Director Mabrouk El Mechri gets a lot of emotional flexing out of the Muscles from Brussels, especially in the previously-mentioned soliloquy, but sub-par acting from some of the supporting cast hurts the overall package. And there are a few odd quirks: some of the English-language dialogue, for example, is oddly ungrammatical, especially in JCVD’s flashbacks, but that could just be a subtle parody of the actor’s own loose grasp on what is probably at least his third language.

The movie also features sweet roundhouse kicks.

Despite its weak points, this movie is worth watching, if not just to see a totally unexpected side of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Kickbox—don’t regular box—your way to the video store: JCVD has my strong recommendation.

8 May 2009 — 3:11 am