Yes, you are the best.

Theatrical Release Date: 11/21/2008
Director: Mabrouk El Mechri
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens, Karim Belkhadra, Jean-François Wolff, Zinedine Soualem

I’ve been suffering people’s jeers and taunts for years as I unabashedly proclaim my fondness for Van Damme’s canon of cinema. Whether it’s “No Retreat, No Surrender”, “Hard Target”, “Time Cop”, “Double Impact”, “Bloodsport” or a host of others, I have a soft spot for Belgian kick-assery. And now, I can’t even begin to describe how great it is to be able to not only review a Jean-Claude Van Damme film (so many of late are made for cable or direct to DVD) but also say that’s it’s a really good film.

This isn’t a documentary but it isn’t completely fiction either. All of the emotions and conflicts within Van Damme’s character hit very close to home. He plays “himself” in the film, embroiled in a drawn out custody battle over his daughter. As luck and the script would have it, on a visit to the bank, he ends up becoming a hostage during a robbery. Over the course of the crime, we see the less glamorous side of being an international action star on the downslope of your career. The tale is poignant and touching in ways no other Van Damme film has ever been before.

Now, I fully acknowledge that very few people would consider any of Jean-Claude’s previous works as high art. The scripts are generally worse than terrible, the acting is either flat or over-the-top and the action usually falls into the believability scale of the Sasquatch.

However, probably due to decades of box office success with little critical acclaim and the subsequent fall from public grace, Van Damme is supremely qualified to become the source for a film like this and to possibly effect a resurgence/rebirth of his real-life career as a result.

As mentioned, he has never really been given a script that called for acting much better than over-the-top generalizations and bad one-liners. With “JCVD”, the melding of fiction and reality created a platform for him to fully inhabit his character … since it is likely not too many shades away from being the real thing.

In real life, he’s had numerous divorces and 3 children between it all. While I haven’t delved into the seedy personal tidbits some “journalists” might, I think the safe thing to say is that at some point during the legal proceedings, I’m sure custody conditions were brought into the mix.

All of this only fueled what might best be described as a breakthrough performance for Van Damme within “JCVD”. There are a few moments that feel more like the cheesy Van Damme I’ve grown up with fondly but don’t be surprised to feel your heart sink a few times as the beloved “Muscles from Brussels” must confront the consequences of being a renowned action star no longer in the prime of his career.

As for the film itself, it’s far more up and down. The opening sequences are fantastic; beginning with an ambitious one-shot credits sequence of Van Damme kicking the snot out of a horde of bad guys amidst a flurry of gunfire and explosions. This leads to a nice moment when the director of the film within a film acknowledges how Jean-Claude brought John Woo to Hollywood (with “Hard Target”) all while failing to care if this fake film is any good.

Once our beloved action star returns to Brussels, the bank robbery becomes the central event surrounding the film and it’s much, much harder for me to be so free and giving with the accolades. It’s almost like two movies in one; the first being the excellent but fictional tale of a former star trying to maintain some control and happiness in his life and the second being a run-of-the-mill heist.

Towards the end of the robbery, Van Damme delivers a monologue straight to camera, representing his inner thought process on how his life has led to this. It’s a heartfelt moment and will really catch JCVD-haters off guard. However, it’s so much better than the robbery elements that it makes me wonder if the opening scene and this monologue were the parts written first and then a bank robbery film was written in between all of it.

Also, none of the other actors seem to carry much weight on-screen, dutifully reciting their lines and failing to add any more layers to the film as a whole. This really is a Van Damme vehicle and thankfully, he’s up to the task of delivering the goods all on his own.

If you’re a fan of Jean-Claude, then I can’t recommend “JCVD” highly enough and am giving the film a 4 out of 5, having decided that his performance in the film warrants a little bit of a reprieve in regards to the robbery elements. I think those of you not on the JCVD bandwagon may not find it quite as appealing but given the story about a former box office star now trying to piece together his life and start anew is compelling and as long as you don’t absolutely hate Van Damme, the film just may surprise you.