With JCVD, Hyacinth Lee speak of the catalyst for her love of Jean-Claude Van Damme and how good parody/pastiche like this and Galaxy Quest get us interested in long-running genres and pop culture legacies.
My relationship with my partner has always been a constant exchange of pop culture, which is one of, I think, the modern love languages. When we started dating nearly seven years ago, I had been burned by action movies and the overwrought machismo that came along with them. I was absolutely uninterested by the guns and the muscles and the stunts and the whole sordid, sweaty business.
That was, until he showed me JCVD.
Seven years ago (yeah, I know, I’m sorry not 10 I AM NOT PERFECT) I saw this movie after much convincing. I rolled my eyes at the insane one-shot opening but slowly settled into the film. I was soon hooked, completely. I wasn’t aware that a movie starring an action star that I had only ever heard of because my mom had met him at a karate conference could be so thoughtful. I didn’t go in expecting good acting, but that’s what I got. I didn’t go in expecting to cry, but guess what? Sure did.
While watching this movie for the first time, I did what I usually do – I hopped on IMDb to find out what the heck this JCVD guy’s deal was. I saw that his breakout movie was one called Bloodsport (intriguing!) so I sought it out and I’ve never been the same since.
Now, if you know me, you know. If you don’t – hi my name is Hyacinth and I full-blown love Jean-Claude Van Damme. I’ve got it bad for this sometimes (ok, usually) truly bananas person. And a lot of the reason I love him is because I saw this first, so I went in seeing JCVD as an authentic person who happens also to be someone who can kick real good. I knew that under those splits was a person who understood who they were in the context of popular culture.
For the uninitiated, the basic plot is that JCVD has fallen on hard actor times and keeps getting shit parts and is strapped for cash, which is especially heartbreaking considering that he’s going through an expensive custody battle for his daughter. (This is not far from JCVD’s real life – he went through this with his son at a time where he was definitely doing too much cocaine.) In Belgium, he goes to a post office to make a money transfer, only to be involved in a robbery/hostage situation that he becomes the face for after a cop sees him in the post office and the robbers take advantage of that. Misunderstandings and heartbreaks ensue. The movie is plenty good. The story is entertaining. But the way I felt about it and what came from it is really what stuck with me.
I haven’t watched JCVD since that initial viewing all those years ago, but I think about it – no exaggeration – probably once a week. I tell people about it all the goddamn time to the point where I was tagged to do this re-view without even seeing it was available and honestly that was affirming. I think it’s a real treasure and a weird way to get into action movies, but it was a way that worked seamlessly for me. I am also the person who saw and loved Galaxy Quest (1999) long before I ever saw – and then eventually loved – Star Trek TOS. Going back and later watching these two films, I had such an affection for without context, now WITH context to their pop culture relevance – that felt so special. I was finally let into this world that was so vast. (ALL the Star Treks! ALL the ’80s/early-’90s action films!) Being unaware didn’t dampen my enjoyment, and it made it that much more special when I was finally in on it.
On this rewatch, two references made me chuckle that I hadn’t caught before:
- “Just because he brought John Woo to Hollywood doesn’t mean he can rub sandpaper on my dick.” Hey, I’ve seen Hard Target now so I get it! Later in the film, someone says he would also have been better in Face/Off but that movie is perfect so calm down.
- “Jean-Claude never punched an Arab.” Well, this is kinda true. Doesn’t mean his movies aren’t still full of cringy racism from other parts of the world, but yeah, there’s no Crimson Dawn in most JCVD vehicles that I’ve seen.
Also, Jean-Claude is GOOD in this movie. His face communicates such a great deal of sadness and fatigue throughout the whole movie – which may or may not be because that’s just what he feels in his real life. I love this movie so much because it doesn’t rely on deprecation of character for Van Damme, but rather it relies on his basic humanity for the plot to progress as it does. It’s putting someone in a desperate situation in an even more desperate situation and watches how he would handle it (which is, spoiler, not SUPER great considering he does end up extorting the Belgium government for the cost of his lawyer fees. Quick thinking, but not great). Jean Claude sells it throughout. And OF COURSE I have to mention the monologue where he rises above the scene and just lays his soul bare about who he is and the things he’s done. It made me sob like a little baby this time around because my heart broke for him and for everyone who is afraid of not being able to get another chance at doing things right.
I’ve also noticed in two films (so it’s a coincidence, not yet a trend) that these action stars who are often universally panned for bad acting are wonderful when they can act in their own native language. This film is one and there’s a brief scene in Escape Plan where Arnold Schwarzenegger is speaking German and I was like, “Huh, all right!”
This movie brings up so much and most of it is steeped in exhaustion. Like, being a hero is fucking exhausting. Trying to do the right thing in a difficult situation is often taxing and impossible to get right. It’s fucking exhausting to be a recognizable face – you can’t struggle publicly or take a break for a moment. It’s exhausting for people around you to assume they can do what you do because you make it look so seamless. This all made me think of my own perceptions of JCVD, here years and many films after the fact. I have a hard time separating the JCVD in this movie from the JCVD I imagine exists in real life, which perhaps makes me no better than the lawyer, judge, director, robbers, cops, taxi driver, and everyone else who assumes they know this guy by the immediate recognition they have of him from the screen. Am I better than these people because I have picked this interpretation to latch onto? Probably not. But I think that’s an interesting thing this film makes you think about. Celebrity is weird and unnatural and gives us all a false sense of intimacy with someone we will probably never meet. We expect one thing and are mad when we get delivered reality. Personally, I’d be giddy if I met a JCVD who was world-weary and asocial so my expectations I think are set in the right place.
In conjunction with all the giddy and good feelings I got while getting to rewatch this movie 10 years after its release, I also felt an undercurrent of real sadness. The last major project that my man worked on was Jean-Claude Van Johnson, a now-canceled Amazon Original series where it is revealed that JCVD’s whole film career has been a front for his actual career as a special ops agent or whatever. I found it unwatchable – and I’ve made it through some truly terrible JCVD films (Double Impact anyone? The conceit of that film is that we’d believe that Jean-Claude would be a character named CHAD.) It takes the core spark behind this great movie of “What if we had JCVD play himself?” and takes all the soul out of it. JCVJ supposes, “But what if he WAS though?” and JCVD insists, “Please, stop, he is not.” They both deal with the ridiculousness of the action hero but JCVJ is constantly winking at the audience while JCVD is exhaustedly looking at us, head in hand. I felt sadness watching this because I knew that if there was any reality to the Jean-Claude we see in this film, in that stunning self-reflective monologue, then he is just doing what he was doing before – surviving in the industry on straight-to-DVD action duds and showing up in the occasional Expendables movie where old, old men drag their tired bones out to see who can still punch and kick and run at a passable rate.
Regardless of that knowledge and sadness – and I know it sounds hyperbolic – this film was the jumping-off point of so much joy for me. It’s why my partner and I have cozy action movie nights where we laugh and gasp together. It’s why I started listening to How Did This Get Made. My practical, critical opinion of this movie is clouded by joy that has stemmed from it – so during this rewatch, I had few critical things to say about it, other than the filter is atrocious, blown-out, and makes everyone look sick. So, it may in reality be a less-than-perfect film that barely makes it to 90 minutes with the weird act breaks put in, but it’s a film I adored when I first saw it and still will continue thinking about weekly. Time to go rewatch Timecop, y’all.