Sunday, June 20, 2010

Damme straight

JCVD (2008) will deserve to be remembered for this six-minute monologue, reportedly improvised by Jean-Claude Van Damme on the set of this meta-satire on celebrity, success and the nature of reality. The film belongs to the genre of the aging successful person contemplating their loss of powers and death beyond it. Westerns had the aging gunfighter movie, sports films do it all the time, musicals had films like The Bandwagon, in which Fred Astaire wonders if he is washed up. You can trace it back to Ibsen's Master Builder, or even, in a way, to King Lear. They are all about the idea that you can't be the king forever.

JCVD has some cinematic merits of its own, although few of them are utterly unique. It is processed in an interesting desaturated look (which is, at least, fair warning to the audience that this should be taken as reality). It occasionally uses overlapping and paralleled timelines in an interesting but not unprecedented manner (e.g., Vantage Point.) It is novel in that the character played by Jean-Claude Van Damme is named Jean-Claude Van Damme and that they have some aspects of their biography in common. This is not unique in the history of movies--many stars have played satires on their own personas; the only novelty is the use of Van Damme's own name. (Think of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in the Jay and Silent Bob movies, Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger, or nearly every episode of Entourage and Extras.) The central irony is that Van Damme's onscreen fighting skills are of little use in extricating himself from a real-life dangerous situation, which is the central conceit of The Last Action Hero.

The film starts with an amusing satirical touch in which a snotty punk of a director wants a complex action sequence to be done in a single take, as in Welles's Touch of Evil. (Jean-Claude protests that he is too old to do multiple takes of the sequence.) As the director in this sequence is Asian and the film is an action film, I suspect the reference really should be the scene in The Protector in which Tony Jaa runs up three or four flights of a large round staircase, battling and defeating several opponents (more often than not throwing them off the staircase) in an uncut sequence lasting more than four minutes.

So although the combination of elements may be new, most of these ingredients have been seen before. What has never been seen is the self-revelatory, poetic, expressionistic, meta-real monologue shown above, which is smartly abetted by the way Van Damme is lifted about the realistic setting as you can see here.

For myself, I will never compare Van Damme to Stephen Seagal again.

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