There appears to be a pattern emerging in the aging corridors of Hollywood, as elder movie stars attempt autumn comebacks by reviving old roles in the hopes of evoking forgotten iconic imagery and hopefully reinvigorating a career that might have turned a little flaccid over the years. This might not always be about money, it might be out of a clear pursuit of art or creative perfection, or simply to fight off the boredom of having accomplished all of your goals too early in life. The first example from recent history that I can think of is Clint Eastwood’s turn as a retired gunman in Unforgiven. It was an unmistakable effort to offer some closure to the kind of roles at the root of his rise to fame. Much in the way that Eastwood’s William Munny seeks to find some kind of redemption for his past misdeeds, actors taking on these kinds of roles seek some kind of redemption for their own career. Not that I’m suggesting that Eastwood was ever in need of professional resuscitation, but I will submit that the nature of his career changed after Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood really came into his own as a director around that time, so much so that he’s now revered for directing even more perhaps than his acting. Subsequent, and far less successful, efforts at swan song performances include Stallone’s final Rambo and Rocky turns (which, to be h0nest, I haven’t seen), and Swartzenegger’s shrunken appearance in Terminator 3 (which was such a tremendous mistake that the TV series went to great lengths, travelling forwards through time in fact, to keep it from ever happening.)
Such efforts over the years, successful or not, have paved the way for Mickey Rourke’s comeback with his performance in The Wrestler. Rourke, as far as I’m concerned, was a cautionary tale on how to mismanage your career and where that might get you – like carrying around a chihuahua in irrelevant bit parts in second (Man on Fire) or third string (Operation Stormbreaker) movies. After gracing the screen in Darren Aronovsky’s sad ode to life on the wrestling circuit, Rourke has risen like a phoenix to be the latest hot commodity in Hollywood. The Wrestler helped to reacquaint (or introduce) fans to Mickey Rourke and show that he still has plenty to offer in the acting department. But another film, employing the same tactics almost slipped by unnoticed last year reminding us all of a certain martial artist from the 90′s, “The Muscles from Brussels”, Monsieur Jean-Claude Van Damme. Unlike The Wrestler, however, JCVD drops all pretense that it’s star might be playing anyone but himself.
JCVD shows us a decidedly downtrodden Jean Claude Van Damme returning home to Belgium in hopes of getting his life back together. He’s been sidelined by the filmmaking community, lost custody of his daughter, and appears to be skating by on his last couple of bucks. When he heads to the local post office to pick up a money transfer from one of his few remaining American friends, he stumbles into a robbery played out by an inept crew of french bandits, one of them bearing a strange ressemblance to John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon. Things are further complicated by the fact that the police think that he’s the one committing the robbery forcing him to handle negotiations with the local constabulary. What makes this situation unique is that in Brussels, Jean Claude is a homegrown hero, even the subject of adulation by his captors in the post office. Despite his fame and reputation as an action star however, he remains powerless to do anything about his situation – much as he does in regards to the situation his life in general is in. JCVD unfolds as an examination of the nature of fame and how stars are loved and hated by the public at the same time, it also offers a thinly veiled look at Van Damme’s life and why circumstances might have landed him where it did. It might also and perhaps encouraging you to root for him to fight his way back to centre stage.
I don’t think I can come out and say categorically that JCVD is a better film than The Wrestler, ’cause there were some problems I had with the way it played out. Just after the halfway point I came across a scene that I couldn’t figure out if I was frustrated that nothing was happening, or if they were just trying to create tension. I think it was a little bit of both.
Jean Claude’s tearful one take monologue where he tries to make amends for a lifetime of bad choices easily rivals Rourke’s tearful plea to his daughter for forgiveness, and the results that follow are certainly more believable. I never bought the way Ram’s daughter absolved him for abandoning her, and then completely disowning him for being a couple hours late for dinner.
Neither film had violence at the core of the story, despite what the general public would be expecting based on the names and stars of both pictures. JCVD downplayed it – both to show a clear line between the facts and fiction in Van Damme’s life, and also to give Van Damme a chance to demonstrate that he has the chops to carry a scene without having to kick people in the head. The Wrestler succeeded in this respect as well, with flying colours. Of course it did – that was the whole reasoning behind the hype piled on it during the past awards season. While there was plenty of action in the ring, the movie really took off between matches as we observed where all his suffering in the ring had gotten him.
The real victory that JCVD scores over The Wrestler is that at the end of the film I feel genuine sympathy for the actor andthe character. While I don’t think I could stomach to check out any of Van Damme’s past films, other than Bloodsport and Hard Target, I think that I could definitely stand to check out something new he might work on. Whereas with Mickey Rourke, I really didn’t like the stupid TV spots he was in talking about his experience making the film. I’m sure it wasn’t his idea, but it was self-serving anyway – and it didn’t enrich my appreciation for his efforts. And I suppose that a story about an underdog is always best received when told by the film from the smaller screen, it just seems more authentic that way.
You can get JCVD on DVD (and Blu-ray) on April 28th, stay tuned for our video review in the coming weeks.