Saturday, November 15, 2008
A lingering paralysis of initiative has pretty much limited me lately to the well-worn grind of eat, work, sleep, repeat. One result – I haven’t added a single word to this blog for months. Half-formed plans for pieces on Helen Parrish, Linda Darnell and Bollywood have remained just that – plans. Hopefully they’ll materialize sometime in the future. Meanwhile there is one subject I’m determined to address right now.
It’s possible – just – that JCVD isn’t the best film of the year. But it won’t be easy convincing longtime Jean-Claude Van Damme fans (like myself), that it’s not. I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and – for me - the buzz still hasn’t worn off. The picture barreled out of nowhere as a massive surprise (and vindication) for Van Damme and for the band of admirers who’ve stuck with him through thick and thin. And for the last decade or so there’s been an awful lot of thin.
JCVD’s a modest-budgeted French language meta-film – a sort of grittier spin on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. with Van Damme playing a washed-up action star whose career issues are complicated by the fall-out from drug problems and family crises. The character, by the way, just happens to be called Jean-Claude Van Damme. In other words, the picture’s pretty much a biographical riff on the life of its star. A picture like this is an enormous gamble. It can easily emerge as one big vanity project. But luckily the people behind the camera are talented and - for this project at least – inspired, bringing out the best in an edgy script - and certainly in their much beleaguered star.
As I indicated, I go back a ways with Van Damme. It was toward the end of his palmy period as a 90’s box-office champ and something about the trailer to THE QUEST lured me into a theatre to watch it. I’d certainly heard of Van Damme but I’d never actually seen one of his movies. THE QUEST turned out to be a gently loopy action fairy-tale set around the turn of the (20th) century. A number of the best fighters from around the world each receive a mysterious summons to compete for a fabulous prize somewhere in Asia’s exotic wilds. (It’s filmed mostly in Thailand). One of the chosen is Van Damme, a kind of mixed martial arts Pied Piper/ Robin Hood who leads/ mentors a band of New York street kids. There’s plenty of adventure along the way – pirates, gun smugglers. a beautiful lady reporter, a dirigible and even an agreeably off the wall appearance from Roger Moore. All set to a super- listenable Randy Edelman score. But most of all I liked Van Damme himself. Handsome as a god, nicely adept at tossing off a comic look or a line, charm to burn, presence galore and – of course – amazing in the action scenes. This was around the time I was still mourning the loss of Brandon Lee, an action icon in the making - one who’d had unlimited screen potential. Suddenly, with Van Damme, I sensed that kind of promise again.
I wound up seeing THE QUEST a couple of times. And, oh yes, I haven’t mentioned – Van Damme was also the director on that picture. So here was somebody with pretty phenomenal abilities all round. I started to catch up on his earlier films. No they’re not all great. But many of them are awfully good. And Van Damme is pretty damn impressive in all of them. In BLOODSPORT, one of the pictures that put him on the map, he’s an amazing amalgam of physicality laced with grace, spunk, spirit and can’t-look-away charisma. All in the midst of some pretty bare-bones production values. The budgets soon got bigger . Van Damme shone in mega-grossing sci-fi rides like UNIVERSAL SOLDIER and TIMECOP. And not content just honing his martial arts skills, he developed his acting talents too. NOWHERE TO RUN, where he plays a drifter turned protector to a rural widow and her son (Rosanna Arquette and Kieran Culkin) was a particular pleasure. And with everyone bringing their A game to it, darn it if the picture didn’t emerge as the actor’s own little SHANE. Van Damme was smart enough – and had sufficient clout – to bring great Hong Kong action directors like John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark to America to helm his films. With more and better talents than any of his action rivals, the star seemed set to eclipse all the others. But fame – and a grueling schedule – proved hard to handle. Suddenly the press was full of stories of Van Damme’s messy drug and marriage problems. And there was talk of trouble on his sets. Stories of temperament, unreliability and out-of-control behaviour circulated everywhere. Whether there was truth or not to the tales, they were fanned to forest-fire proportion in the press. And to top it all off, box-office receipts began to plummet. Van Damme’s career suddenly seemed to implode. His 1998 film LEGIONNAIRE went direct to DVD in North America.(I love it, by the way – the movie nails much of what I remember with fondness about 50’s Alan Ladd adventures like THUNDER IN THE EAST and DESERT LEGION. And it’s got a very cool ending!) Still, all but one Van Damme film since, the shaky UNIVERSAL SOLDIER sequel in 1999, have traveled the same inglorious road direct to DVD shelves . With other Van Damme loyalists, I followed him into that particular Gobi desert. And I’m glad I did. Every 10 months or so a new Van Damme actioner slipped quietly into the video stores to be scooped up by the faithful - and cold-shouldered by the rest of the world. The budgets were often crummy, the financing Eastern-European , the supporting casts unrecognizable except for the odd B lister whose mere presence in a Van Damme flick signaled his or her descent to C list. A critic with nothing better to do would occasionally direct a half-hearted hiss at one of these flicks.Otherwise the films might as well have existed on Mars for all the media attention they garnered. But, here’s the thing. I never understood the way Van Damme was written off as a no-talent actor. I’ve always seen him as someone with great potential. And that potential certainly shows through in many of his pictures – even the non-theatricals. His performance in REPLICANT (2001) serving up something of a Van Damme specialty, the dual role, is terrific – tough and touching. Actors have won Oscars for less. And I defy anyone to watch his edgy, soulful work in UNTIL DEATH (2007) and say he’s not an actor. His fans have always known Van Damme was not just Leader of the Action Pack, he was miles ahead of it. On almost every score. He may not have that young Adonis face anymore, but he’s still beautiful, with the lined, weather-beaten look of someone who’s felt things. There was always a melancholy sensitivity there. The years have only deepened and amplified it. And – in his late 40’s now – there’s no denying the guy still sports an impressive physique. Van Damme delivers the goods for hard core macho action junkies. But, unlike his so-called rivals, he’s attracted a loyal following among women and gays ( a group to whom he’s always been welcoming and supportive). Unlike the Schwarzeneggers and Norrises, Van Damme seems comfortable –even playful - with the sex symbol tag. And that engaging boyish twinkle that pops up every once in a while simply underlines the vulnerability that adds volumes to his appeal. Of course, he can be tough as nails onscreen when he needs to be. But there’s always been a unique grace – a lyrical panache – to his movements. Even those stately, surreal splits of his. In recent years the actor has successfully wrestled with many of his personal demons. He’s long been drug-free and firmly reunited with wife and family. But he’s never been able to get off the direct to DVD treadmill. Till now.
Last year young French director Mabrouk El Mechri was offered a chance to direct a film in which Jean-Claude Van Damme would play himself. He asked to read the script and was dismayed when it turned out to be a weak comedy that used its star as little more than a clown and a punchline. As a teenager El Mechri had been something of a fan, and still retained enough fond memories to think Van Damme deserved better. He told the producers he’d tackle it if they let him write a new script - a kind of serious black comedy presenting the star – warts and all – in a way that – if done right – would project Van Damme with a credibility and candour barely – if ever - attempted in his previous scripts . But he didn’t want to spend a month working on something the star himself would reject out of hand. So he arranged a face to face with Van Damme to see if the two were simpatico – and to get an idea of exactly what WAS and wasn’t off limits. To his delight, he and the actor hit it off immediately – and Van Damme was not only open to El Mechri’s ideas. He was excited by them. I’ve never had any problem accepting Van Damme as a bona fide artist. So I think it must have been great for him to finally hook up with someone who wanted to present him in a genuinely artistic setting. The finished sceenplay proved to be all Van Damme hoped for. El Mechri says the film that eventually made it to the screen is about 70% script and 30% improvisation. But the actual shoot appears to have been largely chaos free. Cameraderie, creativity and excitement seemed to be the order of the day.
The right people apparently saw some of the footage. Because the film was announced as part of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Several jaws dropped at that news. A Van Damme film at Cannes? Is this a joke? There was a lot more perplexed amazement when the picture received some of the festival’s best reviews. A representative for the Toronto International Film Festival caught it there. And immediately nailed it down as a definite for Toronto’s September schedule. By that time, I’d gotten wind of the film. But it seemed too good to be true. Then, in the weeks before the Toronto showing, local papers began to buzz with tidbits about this out-of-left field contender and the tidal wave of positive reaction that was building around it. The picture was set to kick off the Midnight Madness Series at 12 a.m. on the very first day of the Festival. Now, every year TIFF tickets get harder to come by for the average Joe. But I was lucky. A friend (who also happens to be my boss) finagled a ticket for me as a birthday gift. She told me it would probably be a good idea to get there at least an hour in advance. So I set off at 10 pm right from work. That day advance reviews – raves - appeared in NOW and EYE, the city’s two local arts and issues papers. One of them even used JCVD as its cover story. But I wasn’t prepared for the scene that greeted me that night. The line-up was around the block. Almost all people who wouldn't have crossed the street to see Van Damme in person a couple of weeks before. Now they were champing at the bit to watch his latest movie.
We finally got into the auditorium – all I could grab was a seat on the side. Rumours had been buzzing that Van Damme himself might be there. And I’d like to think that here and there in that crowd there must have been some other Van Damme loyalists who’d been just as conscientious in their direct to DVD purchases as me. But mostly it was a Film Festival crowd. And somehow they suddenly all seemed like A-1 candidates to catch Van Damme fever. Fate decided she owed me one. Because shortly before the film started a few choice seats in the centre – formerly reserved – suddenly became available. I was in the right spot at the right time. And managed to slam-dunk myself straight into one of those tasty seats. The Festival host stepped on the stage and told us that if someone had said to him last year that the most exciting film at Cannes 2008 would be the new Van Damme movie, he’d have called them crazy. But it was true. And we were in for a treat. He said "You’re probably wondering where Mr. Van Damme is tonight. Well, he wanted to be here with you. But he’s directing a film in Thailand and just couldn’t get away. He has, however, managed to send a little film clip for you." At which point, we saw a gracious and genial Van Damme – a kind of outdoorsy George Clooney but with more soul – telling us pretty convincingly that he was proud and excited about this picture. And he hoped we’d like it too. When the lights came up again, the host said they did have Mabrouk El Mechri in the house – and brought the director up to say a few introductory words. El Mechri turned out to be quite a charmer himself – casually droll but warm – and probably pretty pleased that a midnight showing of his picture had attracted such a large and receptive crowd. He left the stage – and, guess what! Turns out his seat was the one directly behind mine. So as the lights dimmed I was in the hyper-exciting position of knowing that the director of the movie I was so keyed-up for was going to be watching the whole thing just a few inches away from me.
The film’s logo contains a tongue-in-cheek Van Damme reference that drew immediate delighted reaction from the audience. That sense of delight and total immersion was pretty much a constant over the next 96 minutes. The film’s color scheme tends toward sepia - that curiously seductive palate that somehow manages to register as spartan and lush at the same time. Light shades are sometimes bleached, occasionally creamy; darker ones often take on the color of a rusty nail. It seems just the right choice for the film. The one-take action scene that opens the movie had the audience applauding. What follows over the next hour and a half is exciting, suspenseful, hilarious and moving – certainly never less than riveting. Fading movie-star JCVD is having a bad day to end all bad days. Work problems, legal problems, family problems, cancelled credit cards and bone-weariness all converge into a perfect storm of disaster when he’s inadvertently caught in the middle of a post-office robbery gone wrong. Van Damme has an incredible monologue toward the end of the film – beautifully realized on a visual level and delivered by the actor himself with an intensity and power that stunned the room. It drew a tremendous ovation at the performance I saw. And as the credits rolled, the audience cheered and applauded non-stop. Just as the lights came up, I knew I had only a second or two to do something. And figured I’d burst if I didn’t. I turned and said to El Mechri, "I’m a longtime Van Damme fan and I’d just like to say thank you. You’ve done something wonderful here - for him and for us." For a few seconds the world was a bubble containing just the two of us. He smiled – and then was swept onstage on a rapturous wave of applause. For the next half hour or so, he did a terrific Q&A session. And in spite of the late hour, I think everybody stayed. I remember someone asked him who his favorite directors were – and he mentioned P.T. Anderson, Sidney Lumet and Robert Wise. A nice cross-section. And on the basis of JCVD, I’d say Mabrouk El Mechri has every chance of adding his name to the honor roll of topnotch directors. There’s no doubt he made a wonderful impression that night in Toronto – with his personality, his presence and certainly with his film. But, you know, I’m pretty sure that if Van Damme himself had been there, that audience – up to then defiantly immune to the man’s appeal– would have carried him triumphantly through the streets on their shoulders.
A small Canadian-based company called Peace Arch has picked the film up for North American distribution. I get the impression they’re feisty and committed. But it remains to be seen whether they’ll have the financial clout to give JCVD the promotion it deserves. And will they be able to mount the Oscar campaign the picture merits? At very least, Van Damme rates a Best Actor nomination. JCVD has the undeniable makings of what used to be called an art house success. But the wildly enthusiastic audience reaction I witnessed marks this as a movie with a much broader potential appeal. The film began its Toronto theatrical engagement yesterday. Print ads have been running for a couple of weeks, incorporating some rousing review quotes. The new local notices have been uniformly rhapsodic. Here’s a quote from EYE MAGAZINE.
"In any case, this particular moment belongs to the mighty Van Damme, who gives a brave, honest and
touchingly vulnerable performance in JCVD, which returns to local screens after a rapturous reception at
TIFF… (the film is) remarkably astute as a deconstruction of action-flick tropes, a satire of modern
celebrity and a long-overdue showcase for Van Damme. Devotees of the Muscles from Brussels know
that he can rise to the occasion with half-decent material…but JCVD elicits something raw, true and
extraordinary from the actor. It’s something you could even call heroic"
For the full review, click here.
What will all this mean for Van Damme’s future? Will expectations be impossibly high now?. JCVD seems like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of cinematic thunderbolt. And for all Van Damme’s magnificence, one has to remember that Mabrouk El Mechri’s contribution is paramount. Future Van Damme projects (sans El Mechri) may find the actor working without a net. Van Damme hasn’t directed a film since THE QUEST. How can his pending Thai-filmed project (titled FULL LOVE) possibly match JCVD?. What direction will his career take now? Part of me’s sorry that I may no longer have those regular direct to DVD assembly-line actioners to look forward to. Van Damme could move in other directions now. Needless to say , I have a fan’s fond feelings for the man himself. This new level of appreciation and attention will undoubtedly come with its share of pressures and problems. He almost self-destructed once before. I’d hate to see it happen again. Just the right blend of professional and personal fulfilment. That’s what I want for Jean-Claude Van Damme. I was mentioning my trepidations about the star’s future to someone at work shortly after the TIFF screening. And she said to me, "Well, just consider this. No matter how things play out in the future, I think you can be pretty sure that right now JCVD and its success can only represent a very good – and very positive development in this man’s life." And, she’s right, of course. In a long career full of highs and lows, this film - and this time right now – are going to remain – for Van Damme and for his fans – pure gold.