Heroism vs Celebrity: a Review of JCVD

by Susan Giffone [author, academic]

What is a hero?  Jonathan Swift wrote, “Whoe’er excels in what we prize, appears a hero in our eyes.”  In “JCVD”, writers Frederic Benudis and Christophe Turpin explore the concepts of talent, celebrity and heroism.  They choose as their subject the beefy Belgian karate expert cum action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose exceptional talent in the martial arts led to a very busy and lucrative film career.  Since 1983, he has appeared in some three dozen movies, punching, kicking, chopping and shooting his way to stardom.  On the way he has gained a reputation for a life of excess, including drug use and multiple divorces.  It goes without saying that Van Damme’s movie persona is visceral, not cerebral.  His films are largely over the top fantasies in which the hero’s cool daring and physical prowess win the day. Is Jean-Claude Van Damme a hero or merely a celebrity?

We’re accustomed to seeing the common man portrayed by a movie star.  In “JCVD”, director Mabrouk El Mechri portrays the movie star as a common man.  Van Damme, as himself, returns to his hometown of Brussels from Los Angeles, where he has just attended a child custody hearing.  His nine year old daughter declares she would rather live with her mother.  “The other kids make fun of me”, she says, because of her father’s reputation, presumably for making stupid action films.  His wife’s lawyer recites the litany of grisly ways in which characters have died in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s films.  He is not a fit parent, declares the attorney, a man, “whose films no responsible, aware parent would expose their children to.”  In addition to family troubles, Van Damme has money troubles, and Steven Segal has snagged the lead in the next big action film.

Though exhausted, “The Muscles From Brussels” must be friendly to fans, sign autographs and pose for pictures.  He must also send more money to his lawyers in LA in order to pursue custody of his daughter.  Like so many of us, he is running errands, in a hurry to get to the bank before it closes.  And like many of us, he experiences difficulty and frustration.  The ATM refuses his request, the bank teller is unhelpful.  And no wonder.  He has unwittingly walked into a robbery in progress, complete with psychotic criminals and terrified hostages.  This time, the guns aren’t charged with blanks, and there’s no one yelling “cut!” when things start to go wrong.  Van Damme has no more power than any other mortal: The men wielding the guns are calling all the shots.  Van Damme is bullied like the rest of the hostages, leading him to growl impotently to a robber, “Aren’t you lucky with your gun.”

However, Van Damme is not just like the other hostages.  One criminal attempts to use his celebrity to negotiate with the police, while another one wants to be his friend.  Outside the bank, thousands of fans, believing him to be the instigator of the robbery, nonetheless cheer him on.  Images of the bank and the Brussels street are broadcast worldwide.  Celebrity has trumped heroism.

The movie uses a nonlinear timeline to show us several points of view.  It is all about perspective.  Jean-Claude Van Damme, the person, is not like the characters he portrays in his films.  Is the character Jean Claude Van Damme the JCVD we see in this movie?  Or is he merely Mabrouk’s tool?  Even with a bizarre mid-film monologue in which the actor literally rises above the set to expound upon drugs, women, and life in general, we cannot be sure.  In the movie, the character of JCVD manages to rescue a child, to the wild relief of the child’s mother.  And while the real Van Damme pled guilty to drunk driving and got three years of probation, the character of JCVD is convicted of robbery and sentenced to three years in jail, where he teaches fellow inmates karate moves.  The real victory, though, is his daughter’s visiting him in jail.  Presumably, he has redeemed himself in her eyes.  Now it is her perception of him that is most important.

Jean-Claude Van Damme’s fans should not watch “JCVD” expecting to see business as usual.  This is Van Damme’s opportunity to parody himself, and he succeeds.  The film is by turns drama and comedy, which is actually more like real life than either genre.  For those who enjoy action films, this will be a refreshing departure.  For those who deplore them, it is a chance to laugh at the genre.  For thinking people who are not offended by violence and harsh language, this film offers a chance to explore the concepts of heroism and celebrity, and reflect on how someone becomes a hero in our culture.   What do we, as a society, prize, and how do we reward those who excel? ExileStreet

Susan Giffone is a staff writer for MovieMinistry.com, and is based in the New York City area.

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