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JCVD (2008)

I just saw the movie JCVD last night and I still haven’t stopped shaking my head in amazement.

I remember seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme movies in high school on TV. I was always amazed at how the guy could do a perfect round house kick and drop into the splits at a moment’s notice. But the plots were always the same. I have had a running joke that I use when I discuss plot in my classes: “When your friend asks you what a movie was about, what you tell her is the plot: “A guy’s friend gets beat up in a martial arts competition. The main guy trains in a forest to be a martial artist, part of said training being the cracking open of his groin. He enters the competition and after several fights he gets to KO the guy who hurt his friend by dropping into the splits and upper-cutting the guy in the testicles.’ Which is the plot to every single Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.”

In other words, a joke.

When I saw the trailer to JCVD I was surprised. Still, I thought the movie was a spoof. Instead of being a hero, Jean-Claude is a desperate has-been actor. I was impressed that Jean-Claude would poke fun at his image like that. But that’s about as far as my thought process went and I never went out to actually see the movie.

So I was both taken aback and excited when my wife rented JCVD the other night. She’s not a martial arts movie fan, but since we both thought it was a spoof, we thought it’d be fun entertainment.

The actual movie blew away my expectations. yes, JCVD plays around with the image of Van Damme, but it is not simply a spoof or a comedy. It is a meditation on fame and the price of actually achieving one’s dreams. And, more amazingly, Van Damme gives an incredibly moving six minute, single take monologue that put tears in my eyes. Yes, when he talks about the honesty in a martial arts dojo, I know what he’s talking about. Yes, when he talks about his daughter (he actually has a son, by the way), I can relate because I have a daughter myself. But it’s not just my personal identifications that drew me in. It was his acting. HIS ACTING! JEAN-CLAUDE VAN FUCKING DAMME!

What the movie ends up being about is a man held hostage by his own life and his own decisions and failings. The character Van Damme depicts in the movie is imperfect, but wanting to be better. He wants to be an actual hero, but is constantly sidetracked by his fame and his own inconsistent attention. The movie has real weight. It is a deep exploration of character. Really.

While Steven Seagal claims he is a buddhist spiritual leader endowed with clairvoyance, Jean-Claude Van Damme shows us an imperfect man trying to make sense of his life. Even if it’s all just an act (and what an act), this film conveys much more truth than Seagal’s Buddhism-for-beginners blathering. Jean-Claude Van Damme shows me something about what it means to be human.

And I can’t believe I just wrote that.


(written April 19, 2010)