The Muscles from Brussels is having a bad day. He's been awake for days on end. He's just slogged back from Los Angeles to his Belgian hometown, smarting from being on the losing end of a child custody battle. He's flat broke. All that Jean-Claude Van Damme (played, appropriately enough, by Jean-Claude Van Damme) wants to do is go to the post office. But—cue dramatic movie voice here—THEY WON'T LET HIM.
Before you think JCVD is just another excuse for the aging action star to try and roundhouse kick his way into our hearts one last time, wait up: JCVD is as wildly entertaining and daring as cinema comes, and that's something you don't necessarily associate with the train-wrecked career of the weathered action star (remember the five marriages, the crappy direct-to-DVD films cheaply made overseas, the drug problems). JCVD is centered on the premise of Van Damme stumbling into a robbery and accidentally becoming the most famous hostage ever, and the film spirals into a surreal journey into the wounded psyche of its namesake. (In an odd twist, the only people who are nice to the former star in the film are the majority of the hostage-takers, who are downright enamored with the Van Damme canon.)
JCVD is best when it joyfully dissects the global celebrity obsession and the awkward downfall of Van Damme's career (a running plot point involves him losing acting roles to Steven Seagal—who is now, apparently, willing to cut off his ponytail in order to steal his rival's parts). All the while, JCVD flips the tired genre of action films on its ear. Though he's constantly placed in scenarios where a swift karate punch to the throat is expected of him, the Van Damme of JCVD is a meek and declawed paper tiger, crippled by his loneliness and a reluctance to harm anyone, even those holding a gun to his head. Quite possibly the most meta action flick ever made, JCVD initially feels kind of like Being John Malkovich with roundhouse kicks. But instead, it prefers to focus less on all the face punching and more on the emotional bottoming out of its fragile title character. Ponytail or not, Seagal couldn't have pulled this one off.