- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2008

Jean-Claude Van Damme nearly rose to the heights of other ‘80s action heroes like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he never got his “Rambo” or “Terminator” to complete his ascent.

The 47-year-old actor may have the last laugh.

His latest film, “JCVD,” casts him as a fictionalized version of himself, a washed-up actor juggling bills, a nasty divorce and a dearth of film roles.

Not only is the film a marked improvement from his testosterone flicks of yore, Mr. Van Damme gets to flex much more than his legendary Muscles From Brussels.

He actually acts, and no one but the most cynical of audiences will greet the moment with giggles.

The French-language film opens with the kind of action scene that forged the actor’s modest fame. It’s a doozy of a sequence, a one-take barrage showing that the aging action star remains as brawny as ever.

Turns out it’s all an act. Van Damme, playing himself, is merely on a film set running through his paces. When he asks if he can do a second take, the young director dismisses him like a child.

How the mighty have fallen.

The next scene finds Van Damme paying for that violent screen persona. He’s in a courtroom fighting with his ex-wife for custody of their child. Her lawyer starts listing examples of the actor’s violent movie theatrics to show he isn’t fit for full-time parenting.

His day only gets worse when he finds himself in the middle of a bank heist. The police think he’s robbing the bank, a sad example of a fallen star desperate for cash. But the truth is more complicated, and Van Damme can’t fall back on his martial arts magic, or a team of stunt coordinators, to save the day.

“JCVD” works both as a commentary on modern fame as well as cogent character study. Van Damme’s film career is both a blessing and a curse, leaving him creatively unfulfilled and constantly trying to live up to the image others have of him.

The main heist story isn’t as electric as it could be, but it allows the story to mock just how ingrained his fame remains. The overlapping narrative seems unnecessarily complex, but Van Damme’s tragic presence provides more than enough consistency.

The handsome actor looks older now, the lines on his face appear as if they were gouged by a blunt instrument. It only enhances his performance, and the somber mood that’s occasionally spiked by black humor.

Mr. Van Damme even delivers an extended monologue late in the film that is neither embarrassing nor hackneyed. It’s quite good, in fact, distilling some of the movie’s larger themes into a revealing rant. One suspects it’s more than a bit autobiographical.

“JCVD” won’t reignite the actor’s action career. Pop culture has moved on, preferring superheroes to superhuman fighting machines. That doesn’t diminish what he accomplishes in “JCVD” - showing naysayers that an actor always existed deep within his sculpted physique.

★★★

TITLE: “JCVD”

RATING: NR (Adult language, violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri. Written by Mr. El Mechri, Frederic Benudis and Christophe Turpin.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

WEB SITE: www.jcvd-themovie.com

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