Art-house patrons who'd never dream of sullying their eyeballs with the likes of "Timecop" and "Bloodsport" may find themselves in the strange position of eagerly awaiting the new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. The limber, compact action star known for his lethal kicks has long since disappeared to direct-to-video purgatory, but in "JCVD" he is reborn, playing a role he has never previously essayed: himself, or at least a fictional facsimile thereof.
Most of the acting in Van Damme's films takes place below the neck, but in "JCVD" he manifests a sad, soulful presence as a fading star who has returned to his native Belgium with his tail between his legs. Although fans still stop him excitedly in the street, his fame is as much a liability as a boon. At a custody hearing, his ex-wife's lawyer cites his violent movies as proof of his deficient character, and his daughter is so embarrassed by the taunting she receives from her classmates when her father's movies show up on television that she'd rather not see him at all.
When stars play themselves, it's almost always in the service of comedy, but "JCVD" is a celebrity sendup in a decidedly melancholy key. There are a few in-jokes at Van Damme's expense, the most persistent involving his repeatedly losing parts to Steven Seagal, but in general, the life of a waning martial arts icon would seem to be a pretty glum proposition. Shot in a gloomy grisaille, the movie rebuffs any sense of play, even as it toys with the distance between the real Van Damme and his quasi-fictional counterpart.
Abandoned, bereft and short on cash, Van Damme decides to put his skills to good use by holding up a bank. Or at least he appears to. Director Mabrouk El Mechri, who co-wrote the script with Frederic Benudis and Christophe Turpin, plays a game of limited perspectives. One moment Van Damme is posing for a picture with a pair of eager video-store clerks, the next he's peering out over the barricades as cops fill the street. Not until the movie backs up and replays the scene from inside the bank do we realize that the prisoner of fame has been taken captive by the real bank robbers, a grubby and deliberately uncharismatic lot who bear little resemblance to Van Damme's usual nemeses.
There's not much purpose to these pomo shenanigans except to enliven a movie that rapidly exhausts its handful of good ideas. The giddy near-brilliance of its central conceit is squandered by flat execution. Once Van Damme is stranded inside the bank with his three unglamorous captors, it starts to feel as if you're watching one of Van Damme's earlier movies, only without the punching and kicking. Imagine how little that leaves.
"JCVD" makes a nod in the direction of its star's usual milieu with a three-minute opening shot that finds Van Damme on a movie set, dodging bullets and dispatching hordes of assailants. (The choreography is such that you can clearly see him fan the air in front of people he's supposed to be laying flat, but one might charitably chalk it up to the movie's behind-the-curtain approach.) But that display of athletic and cinematic prowess pales beside the movie's climax, which takes the form of another single-take shot, this one twice as long. Taking a moment away from his hostage crisis, Van Damme addresses the camera directly in what is surely the longest monologue of his career. As the shot lifts him up and away from the set, he takes stock of his life, the dreams that were realized and then dissipated, and he begins to cry with such depth of feeling that the line between one Van Damme and the other vanishes. It might be the most impressive stunt of his career.
MPAA rating: R for language and some violence. In French with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: At Landmark's Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223; Edwards University Town Center 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.