Jean-Claude van Damme has never been better than when playing himself.
JCVD. That's Jean-Claude van Damme to you. Semi-affectionately known as "the muscles from Brussels", van Damme achieved a level of fame as an action star in the 1980s, but never quite made the leap into the mainstream. Now he's approaching 50, his fee is getting cheaper and his alimony payments are getting tougher. But is this the real JCVD, or just another role?
In a performance as sympathetic and engaging as Mickey Rourke's in The Wrestler, van Damme plays van Damme, a hero on the streets of his hometown in Belgium, where he's visiting his parents, but also an ageing action star whose career seems headed for a black hole. Even the taxi driver on the way in from the airport gives him a tongue-lashing. Still, things can always get worse. By pure coincidence, van Damme goes into a small bank at the very moment it's being held up by armed robbers. He's taken hostage along with the staff and a couple of customers. Outside, though, the media and the cops jump to the conclusion that he is one of the hold-up gang. The bank robbers have their own problems - one of them is a bloodthirsty sociopath; another is a genuine Jean-Claude fan - but whatever way you look at it the actor is in a pickle. This isn't your typical van Damme movie, that's for sure. It's not a glossy Hollywood movie either. Presumably the co-writer and director Mabrouk el Mechri will end up there soon, but for now he is working with limited resources and making a virtue out of necessity. He shows what he can do in the opening scene, a virtuoso long-take travelling shot with JCVD on the rampage. It's just a little off - the blocking is slightly clumsy; a prop wall shakes. But all that turns out to be intentional, simultaneously a parody of the kind of cheapjack action movie van Damme has been reduced to, and of a certain kind of overeager film-school graduate director, much like el Mechri, probably.
The structure teases out the robbery from four or five different perspectives with Tarantino-like cleverness. It's contrived of course, but this overt ingenuity is part of the package. It's a movie that winks at us - and then (who would have thought it?) bares its heart. In a breathtakingly audacious scene, for five or six minutes Jean-Claude opens up to the camera and puts us in his head. It's a brilliant monologue that breaks through the fourth wall and the ceiling too. How much of it is autobiographical, and how much was scripted we may never know, but you won't think about van Damme the same way again.
It must be said the film's invention and ingenuity do begin to flag the longer the hostage stand-off lasts. And it's probably too self-consciously clever to be particularly suspenseful. But it clocks in at a tight 92 minutes, and ends on an appropriately bittersweet note. It's hard to believe van Damme will ever find a better showcase - or play a part so well.