JCVD Review

The Film

A battered, world weary movie star returns to his homeland and seems to have flipped his lid, robbing a post office and taking hostages. Straight off his latest awful action flick, straight out of the court case for custody of his child that has to be paid for by doing the movie, and filled with AWARENESS that his life is harder than he ever thought. The question is - has Jean Claude Van Damme gone bonkers in Brussels?
Like other action stars, Van Damme has become a brand that his films struggle to justify. The entertainment of Maximum Risk, Replicant and Timecop, the best films of his, I hesitate to use the word "acting", career are distant memories that his ageing body and thinning hair do little to remind us of. JCVD is Van Damme's attempt to show the world that he's no fool, and that the decline and difficulties others see are part of the personal pain he carries.

JCVD also attempts to make sense of an interview that the man gave to French TV, where his repeated use of the word "aware" was roundly lampooned. This is his attempt to show how important consciousness is to this man, and that rather than being an out of touch movie star, he is very in touch with his place as a Belgian, a failed family man, and a public celebrity. In short, JCVD shows how hard it is to be Jean Claude Van Damme, and this is best summed up in a climactic soliloquy where our hunk of Belgian meat is lifted out of the story in order to address the camera eye to eye in a stripped bare monologue.
Whatever else this movie is it is very brave and, apart from an ending where dark forces get their pound of flesh, it is possibly the best film made about celebrity in some time. Central to this endeavour is the efforts of the writer director, Mabrouk El Mechri, whose skill in handling the visuals and making the story palatable is undeniable. The screenplay employs the device of different perspectives and includes that of fans and the wider world alongside those of the central characters, and this helps to add to the muddying of the truth around the story. In addition to cleverly evoking Van Damme's goldfish bowl existence, the screenplay also includes lines and comments of cutting autobiography. So we get digs at John Woo and Steven Seagal, the media, the fickle public, and most of all the man himself. For letting El Mechri be so raw in his treatment of him, Van Damme shows real courage and a fair degree of class.

Be warned that there is virtually no action to follow in this real world tale of a movie star who walks in to the wrong place at the wrong time. The movie is very literate about Van Damme's past and his career and one of its joys is that this career often provides tips for the robbers he ends up embroiled with. This irony and self knowledge add to the layers of perspective and throughout efforts are made to establish different worlds of fiction and reality.
Surprisingly, it all works and is so nakedly direct that what might have been a plea for sympathy for the rich and successful movie star becomes more humane and less contrived. This even extends itself to the filming method with the director using long takes and hand held cameras to add to the sense of reality. In its finale, there is some nonsense about a conspiracy of the powerful against the world's favourite Belgian, but I do believe we are left to treat this as fiction and if not, then I forgive this paranoiac turn because, well, I ended up liking the star.

Transfer and Sound

The photography of JCVD is sepia toned and de-saturated, it does seem to have been shot on 35mm and this transfer shows very little grain. The detail of the transfer and the sharpness of the images are immense, and coupled with the superb shadow detail and black levels this is a very good presentation in the film's 2.35:1 ratio. There was a couple of moments when I noticed some aliasing but there were no other obvious transfer issues. There is a blu-ray available which must look marvellous given the quality of its inferior cousin here.
The dialogue in the film is multilingual with a fair amount of English spoken and the rest French language with burnt in subs. Both audio tracks are extremely well mastered with clear, precise treble and confident handling of the lower frequencies. The 5.1 mix is very detailed and dimensional with dialogue and voices moving around the channels as required by the action. Either audio option is very good, but clearly to catch the chaos and tumult of some of the film you do need to experience the six channel mix.

Discs and Special Features

There are no extras on the first of these two dual layer discs which use solid menus with animated scenes from the film as their background. The second disc includes two documentaries, deleted scenes and teasers for the film.

The deleted scenes are two in total, one where the cigarette kicking trick goes wrong by going right, and the other a longer version of Van Damme talking about the interview I mention above. The teasers for the film are on a two and a half minute reel and include scenes from the film along with extra material

The two documentaries show completely different sides of the star. In the Making Of, the director spends his time coaching and protecting Van Damme from his anxieties and self doubt. Van Damme seems a very shy man, someone who has had his fair share of bad experiences with difficult people and this documentary follows him through filming up to the point he sees, and enjoys, the finished film.

In the second documentary, the director acts as cameraman as Van Damme cheerily and openly talks about his experiences in movies and takes us on a guided tour around the Brussels of his youth. He talks about begging Menahem Globus to let him re-cut Bloodsport after the producer wanted to end his career before it began, he talks about his love for Hong Kong and some of his bitter experiences of the business. His candour and his warmth bear testament to his view that filming JCVD was like therapy for him, and his affection for El Mechri seems very sincere.

Both of these documentaries are excellent and I find it hard to credit that I'd enjoy a piece where Van Damme takes me on a tour of Brussels, but I did. Together the two pieces paint a picture of a man much changed.


I know it's only February, but this is the best work I have seen this year and this standard def release is excellent. If you're curious about Van Damme the man you will enjoy this thoroughly and if you simply enjoy talented film-making you will find a lot here of interest.

8 out of 10
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