Gravitas, stage presence, charisma, shine — a few of the qualities that an acting virtuoso is judged by. When was the last time any of those traits were brought up in a review of a movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme? For years, Van Damme entertained millions, but his career has seen a decline with many of his most recent movies going straight to DVD. One might argue that Van Damme never really had a chance to become a bonafide actor having been typecast as an action hero. Some might argue it was never possible for him to be a true actor. For all the detractors and the critics who laughed at the mention of the names Van Damme and Oscar in the same sentence, JCVD is his personal statement, an open letter that shows Van Damme as a human being who works, struggles, and lives with one major difference — he has a million eyes watching him.
It may seem strange to give Van Damme props for playing himself in a fictional day-in-the-life-of, but there’s something more here than following the martial arts star with a camera crew. The Muscles from Brussels, as he was nicknamed, returns to his home country Belgium to start over and build a respectable career while his divorce attorney in Los Angeles works on custody issues. Life for Van Damme is different even if it’s mundane because of his reputation which is a double-edged sword. In a flashback, Van Damme’s daughter — he has a son in real life — tells the judge she wants to live with her mom because all of the kids make fun of her. With his career and family in the dumps, Van Damme finds himself stuck in a hostage situation with news reports accusing him of robbing the bank he’s trapped in.
When a robber brings Van Damme outside the building, Van Damme breaks free, roundhouses the robber in the face, and high-fives the cops around him. It’s what people expect to see, but the scene restarts showing a more modest, and probably realistic, version of what actually happens. For those looking for a martial-arts movie fix, they might be disappointed or pleasantly surprised if they’re open to what JCVD offers. It’s a movie that plays with the public notion of a man who spent so much of his career being a superhero on the screen without allowing him the benefit of letting him slip away from his alter-ego. He’s been ridiculed and put down because his real persona breaks the fantasy. Van Damme has a chance to answer those harsh judgments with a monologue directed towards the audience. As the chair he sits in lifts him above and over the set, he breaks the fourth wall. His speech is part confessional, part plea — but it’s not a pity party. It works because it’s sincere. It succeeds because it’s genuine. Van Damme hits hard in a way so unexpected, but so capably — he finally proves he’s more than a piece of meat. Richard Corliss says Van Damme deserved an Oscar. No one’s laughing here.