If the idea of a postmodern film about the nature of celebrity in which Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself as a pathetic aging action star who is caught up in a real life heist situation interests you in the least, you should watch this film before it ends its run at ACMI this Wednesday. It is worth the effort.The film opens with an effortlessly entertaining one-take action scene which plays out like an amalgamation of the comedy of True Lies and the bravura setpiece in the detention centre at the end of Children of Men. It certainly proves that the director Mabrouk El Mechri could make a straightforward action flick standing on his head. But El Mechri has more cerebral intentions. The film is centred on a “real-life” hostage situation in Brussels, the hometown of JCVD. He accidentally becomes involved, at which point the film devolves into a series of flashbacks, some painting a picture of JCVD’s star persona; custody battles, career compromises and drug addiction; while others show another facet of the siege situation. Often the film spends time with ordinary people on the street ruminating on what JCVD means to them. It’s funny, quick witted and well-directed.
It’s also very smart. Mechri acknowledges that the version of JCVD presented in this film is as much a construct as the characters that JCVD plays in his action films and he plays around with this idea with a few cinematic tricks borrowed from the French New Wave. The film’s most audacious moment has JCVD floating above the set, giving an emotionally-wrought monologue on his life and career direct-to-camera. It’s actually astounding how well Van Damme comes of as an actor – he plays this scene completely straight and sincerely even if the director doesn’t.
Besides spending a bit too much time with the conventional hostage story, there are not too many missteps here. I only had the nagging feeling that there was something missing here: Other comparable movies that deconstruct celebrities usually have a particular angle to their critique. Being John Malkovich was about queer sexuality and ego as much as it was about Malkovich himself. Irma Vep is about French cultural insularism and globalisation as much as it is about Maggie Cheung. JCVD flirts with some interesting ideas – the ideology of action films, the celebrity as transnational commodity – but never interrogates these ideas satisfyingly. El Mechri deconstructs JCVD and underneath there is nothing but JCVD. Still, even if it’s not quite able to bring that little bit extra to the postmodernist table, JCVD is an awesome achievement. I see that El Mechri’s directorial career could go two ways: He could become more the kickass action director or more the kickass experimental director. It will certainly be interesting to see where he ends up.
SEE THIS WITH:
Irma Vep, (Oliver Assayas, 1996)
A classic film director decides to remake classic silent French film Les Vampires but with Hong Kong Action star Maggie Cheung in the lead. All sorts of pressures and politics and egos cause the project to unravel.
Being John Malkovich, (Spike Jonze, 1999)