Hell Is For Heroes: Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD
If movie stardom is a fickle, unforgiving beast, then action stardom is an all-consuming meat grinder. Performers put their bodies - and sometimes even their lives - on the line for an adoring public that loves them for...what? Five years? Ten? These professional bad dudes ride a wave of hit after hit until it crashes and then dissolves onto the dry beach of Walmart DVD bins, where only the bravest cinephiles bother to vacation (and are rarely compelled by more than morbid curiosity to visit). If one miraculously manages to score a career like Stallone or Schwarzenegger's, they might get a second or third wind because their personas were bigger than the films themselves.
For most guys in the action trenches: it’s a burst as quick as a roundhouse kick to the face and then, like that, they’re gone. Lost to those bins where you hope a diamond might be found amidst the coal. Wealth, fame and success burn bright, but, oh, do they burn. Before an actor knows it, they’re a punchline. Someone who once possessed vitality and excitement, reduced to looking bored on the cover of some Bulgarian-shot tax write-off. Wealth sacrificed to divorce and possibly drugs. Names now nothing more than answers to hipster bar trivia questions.
Autobiographical cinema isn’t some new idea, by any means. Filmmakers like Fellini and Fosse were doing it long before many of us were a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Yet as the current masters begin to enter their twilight years, we’ve been hit with a deluge of filmic auto-critique. From Scorsese and Tarantino using stuff like The Irishman (2019) and Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood (2019) as career examinations, to PTA pissing the world off with Licorice Pizza (2021), to Eastwood's entire late period, there’s a little something for everyone. You want hazy remembrances of youth? They've got you covered. How about Clint chasing a rooster? That's there, too.
With the 2022 Oscar Season barrelling toward us like a runaway prison transport in a Walter Hill picture, viewers can’t enter a theater (or fire up their streamers) without a major filmmaker like James Gray, Steven Spielberg, or Alejandro González Iñarritu putting their shit out into the streets (so to speak). Film, as it’s often been said, is a director’s medium. With that artistic ownership comes a certain acceptance of this brand of confessional vanity project. That’s what it is, though: a vanity project, no matter the quality. An actor using such a large canvas to paint a self-portrait is rarely tolerated, and if it is, it’s generally a guy like Eastwood, who’s directing himself as well. An action star - and a faded one at that - reflecting on past glories? Especially one who you’d never confuse for a thespian? The notion seems downright laughable.
After turning heads as the big Soviet bad in No Retreat, No Surrender (1986), Jean-Claude Van Damme exploded onto the scene with Cannon's martial arts classic Bloodsport (1988). Cut from stone and blessed with the grace of a dancer, “The Muscles From Brussels” was impossible to ignore. Unlike his contemporaries, he seemed to glide through fights like Baryshnikov and, further removed from the meatheads of his day, was stunningly gorgeous. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t really act or that English didn’t seem like even his third language. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him.
As Van Damme settled into his stardom through the late '80s and early '90s, minting cult favorites like Cyborg (1989), Kickboxer (1989), and Lionheart (1990), he'd been firmly established among the Slys and Arnies of the world. By ‘94, though, the wheels were starting to feel a little wobbly. The excesses that came with being a movie star were clearly starting to wear on him and it’s most evident in the wildly decadent Street Fighter (1994). Eyes glazed over, careless smirk creeping through in every scene, he’s clearly going through it, but there's still a lackadaisical charm to be found in that colossally wonderful failure. Defenses aside, JCVD was giving into his impulses, and unlike his final round with M. Bison, he was losing the fight. He eked out a few more years as a viable leading man until, finally, his collaborations with legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark went bust and his career ground to a halt. It seemed like he’d drift into the wilderness of DTV and that would be that.
Flash forward to 2008, and Van Damme's toiling away in the shelf-stuffer content mines; a distant memory for most movie fans the world over. There’s always good to be found in DTV action, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that '99 to '07 was truly Jean-Claude’s fallow period. Then, as if from nowhere, news began circulating that JCVD would be appearing as himself in the aptly titled JCVD (2008), and that the movie wouldn’t just be a fun, meta-joke for the star to take the piss out of himself, but a full-on drama with Van Damme doing the first dramatic work of his career. Perhaps most shocking, upon release, wasn’t just that it was good. It was that he was great.
Rave reviews of Van Damme in JCVD always felt a little backhanded at the time, mostly because true heads knew that even if he wasn’t turning in Olivier-quality performances, JCVD was never as bad as people liked to joke. He had a soul behind his eyes that extended past the brutality he was committing onscreen. He wasn’t prone to quips or hacky one-liners, but instead sports a goofy earnestness that makes him far more likable than guys like Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris, who're both also routinely mocked for their acting "prowess". Still, it’s not completely unfair to say that, by Street Fighter, whatever spark that existed within him was dwindling, and by the time he teamed with NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman, in box office and critical failure (but still very fun) Double Team (1997), he was coasting on past semi-glories. What better way to reclaim that lost soul than pantomiming your own fall from grace on-screen, all for the world to witness?
Written and directed by French filmmaker Mabrouk El Mechri, JCVD begins with a spectacular one-take action set piece. El Mechri eases you into what could be mistaken for something out of JCVD’s heyday. It’s certainly, at that point, the best action he’s done in maybe a decade. But soon enough, we find that we’ve been watching a film-within-a-film, and one made by a director who couldn’t possibly give less of a shit about the work or JCVD himself. As our man asks for something, anything from the fictional director, he’s flat-out ignored. We’re far from the glory days of John Woo and Roland Emmerich here.
As we sift through the ashes of JCVD’s existence, what unfolds is a tragedy. He’s penniless, friendless, and about to lose his wife and the custody of his child in an ugly divorce. Rushing back home to Belgium to collect himself, he’s greeted by a couple of video store clerks as a major star. At first a sign that maybe the bloom hasn’t completely faded from his rose, it becomes immediately obvious that it’s less to do with him and more to do with Belgium’s lack of superstars. Graciously posing for a picture, he jogs over to the bank hoping to receive a wire transfer of money that he needs to pay his lawyer. While he’s inside, gunshots are heard, and as a cop rushes over to see what’s going on, he sees JCVD glaring at him from the window, demanding that he back away. Has the washed-up, down on his luck actor just taken the bank hostage in a desperate attempt at scoring some cash? Has our hero become the villain? These are the questions racing through the hostage negotiation team’s head as they, and what appears to be an entire city of onlookers, descend on the bank.
To say more would be to spoil a fun little caper, but look, the film itself isn’t necessarily what makes JCVD special. An ugly brown tint makes it almost impossible to look at, especially in the underlit moments. Even at 90 minutes, the novelty of JCVD playing himself can’t alleviate this from feeling a smidge too long. No, what sustains this strange object and makes it essential autobiographical viewing is how goddamn good Van Damme is in it. There’s a moment towards the end of the film where he lays himself bare that’s the finest work of his career, but even removed from the self-flagellation, he’s excellent. There’s that spark that just wasn’t present for over a decade. One might argue that, in playing himself, he’s not exactly stretching, but there’s a beautiful well of sadness that's uncovered while stripping away our memories Frank Dux or Luc Deveraux. As Jean-Claude, however fictionalized this version is or isn’t, he accesses a deep, honest truth that only comes with knowing who you are and what you fought through to get there. It’s a removal of ego and plunge into the raw id that is Jean-Claude Van Damme.
That’s never more clear than the aforementioned monologue. As the police struggle to break through and the hostage situation drags on, an exhausted JCVD is slumped in a chair. The world around him suddenly drifts away, and Jean-Claude floats above the set and into the lights. It’s here, in an unbroken six-minute speech that the oft-mocked action star stuns you into silence:
"I saw people worse off than me. I went from poor to rich and thought, why aren't all like me? Why all the privileges? I'm just a regular guy. It makes me sick to see people who don't have what I've got. Knowing that they have qualities too. Much more than I do! It's not my fault if I was cut out to be a star. I asked for it. I asked for it, really believed in it. When you're thirteen, you believe in your dream. Well, it came true for me. But I still ask myself today what I've done on this earth. Nothing! I've done nothing!"
It’s not enough that he depicts his failure as a husband and father for the world to see. Admitting to a drug problem is old hat. We all know about it. Hell, we saw him going through it in major blockbusters. No, what he’s confronting here is much deeper because it’s questioning his life’s work. Was kicking ass for millions worth anything? Will any of these films stand the test of time beyond action heads like us? The question of “what have I done with my life” plagues people daily. Especially if you’re in an untenable state of being, be it financial, societal, romantic, anything. For a guy as handsome, successful and damn good at his job as JCVD to break down in front of the camera wondering if any of this shit meant anything is wrenching. Doubly so because the film doesn’t exactly provide you with a clear answer. The sick joke is that whatever the truth behind this robbery is revealed to be, it’s made him a bigger star than any of his films. This isn’t a situation to kick your way out of, and the idea that everything you did in life might come second to something so out of your control is debilitating.
The power in this monologue is otherworldly, and in it, JCVD transcends his perceived reputation and becomes the actor many of us always saw in those eyes. Was it worth it, then? The years of abuse to his body? The tortuous workout regimen to maintain Adonis status? Unlike the film’s nebulous, downbeat ending, the living, breathing JCVD had a second wind post-JCVD. He returned to the Universal Soldier (1992) series, helping to deliver the two best in entries in the John Hyams-helmed Regeneration (2010) and Day of Reckoning (2012). He went back to multiplexes around the world as the villain (appropriately named Jean Villain) of all-star action sequel The Expendables 2 (2012). He even got to show off his comedic chops in the Kung-Fu Panda (2008) movies and the undervalued Amazon series Jean-Claude Van Johnson (2017).
He’s aged into hangdog, Old Man Van Damme and it can be traced right back to JCVD. In acknowledging the worst parts of himself and then burning down the legend of JCVD to ashes, Jean-Claude Van Damme allowed us to see him at his most vulnerable. Autobiographical cinema is always born of vanity, but deciding you’re worth being on screen at all can’t be considered vain. This could’ve been a greatest hits puff piece. “Look at how badass the Muscles From Brussels was, folks!” But it wasn’t.
For a man who was never afraid to show off that gorgeous, naked ass, JCVD is him at his most open - an elegy for '80s excess and '90s bloat. A man born anew, a better actor than ever and, more importantly, perhaps an even greater, wiser person. Still, was it worth it? For the viewer, it’s an unequivocal “yes.” Years of martial arts greats followed by a late period of interesting DTV work is more than most fans of action could hope for. For the man himself, it’s unanswerable. Older and wiser, sure, but for all of us, the search for legacy continues until death. The core of JCVD in JCVD acknowledges a stark truth: you can realize every dream you’ve ever had, and then some, but at the end of everything, when the lights go out, you’re just another grave in another plot of land, in another field grass. So you better make it count.
Brandon Streussnig is a Staff Writer and the Social Media Coordinator for Secret Handshake, whose writing can also be found at Fangoria, The Playlist, and Polygon.