It would be hard to think of a worse venue for a movie than the press and industry screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival. The screenings, held for the press (mostly unwashed bloggers) and unimportant industry people (important industry people are off doing deals), are full of German sales teams who walk in late and leave early, talking loudly the entire time. Cell phones and BlackBerrys light up the darkness as clumps of publicity girls try to figure out where tonight's party is while blogger boys slump in their seats and scowl at the screen, daring it to try to entertain them.
So as the end credits for JCVD (Peace Arch Entertainment Group) rolled at a rainy afternoon screening in Toronto this fall, I was surprised to hear thunderous applause break out. Actually, I'm lying. I wasn't surprised at all. There had been earlier volleys of clapping and laughter throughout the film, and I myself had even cried. Twice.
The once-impressive "Muscles from Brussels" is a direct-to-video joke nowadays, churning out ever-cheaper flicks, each less entertaining than the last. But JCVD is different from Jean-Claude's recent movies in two major ways. Unlike In Hell, Derailed, Wake of Death, Until Death, The Hard Corps, or The Shepherd: Border Patrol, JCVD is actually getting a theatrical release. Also, in JCVD, Jean-Claude doesn't play an Iraq war vet named Phillip Sauvage, or a border patrol agent named Jack Robideaux, or even a NATO operative named Jacques Kristoff. Instead, he plays a washed-up, B-list action-movie star named Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, a real life Jean-Claude fan, this French film stitches together pieces of Van Damme's real life, rumors, slightly fabricated incidents, and complete fiction to paint a pop portrait of a star in decline. Think of it as Sunset Bloodsport with Jean-Claude as Norma Desmond. Beginning on the set of yet another Van Damme action snoozer, the real action kicks in when the Muscles heads to court for a custody hearing for his daughter, during which his movies become damning evidence of his inability to parent, and his daughter ultimately chooses to live with her mother. This is based on a painful real-life incident from 1996, when Van Damme lost custody of his son during his fourth divorce.
Desperate for money to file an appeal and back in Belgium to restart his life, fictional Jean-Claude signs up for yet another career-killing, cash-in flick and heads to the post office to receive his wire transfer so that he can pay his lawyer. But this is a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, and, as in 1995's Sudden Death, he walks into the middle of a bank robbery and winds up being held hostage. Mistaking the hostage for the mastermind, the cops lock down the bank and set up snipers with one order: Jean-Claude Van Damme must die. Thinking the national joke has finally lost it, mobs of media-maddened Belgians gather to see him get a bullet in the head.
While the movie is a dizzying meta-maze, JCVD also follows the Van Damme formula: An underdog with a ridiculous name must overcome incredible odds to kick people in the face and save the day. And in JCVD, the onetime action star with a ridiculous name does save the day (in a manner of speaking), kick people in the face (in a manner of speaking), and overcome incredible odds: the mess he's made of his own life.
In the middle of the film, the action grinds to a halt and Jean-Claude turns to the camera and begins to speak. After a minute or two of his well-known Zen-like head-scratchers ("One plus one equals two, but it could be 11."), he begins to talk about his drug addiction, his failed career, his age, and the fact that he's done nothing with his life. It's a riveting five minutes of cinema because we are seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme transform into Charlie Brown. Facing defeat at every turn, the promise of making good movies held out like Lucy's football and eternally yanked away at the last minute, Van Damme resembles no one more than Charles Schulz's main character, the loveable loser eternally defeated by bad luck and his own insecurities.
All the little annoyances of JCVD dissolve into nothing in the face of Jean-Claude Van Damme's performance as himself. While this movie steals from many sources, its biggest influence might be The Elephant Man, because at the center of the film is Jean-Claude Van Damme staring into the camera and saying: "I am not an animal. I am a human being. I am a man!" And by the time this movie ends, you'll believe that a man can cry.