Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


We hadn’t heard from Jean-Claude Van Damme much by 2008. Oh, he was still making movies. But they came and went without much notice, disappearing onto video store shelves where nobody but hardened action cinema fans watched them. Which made the sudden buzz “JCVD” received on the festival circuit all the more surprising. Van Damme had starred as himself in a primarily subtitled dramedy. The film was getting good reviews but the star’s performance was getting great reviews. Considering Van Damme’s skills as a thespian were rarely lauded, it was an unexpected turn of events. So was a star mostly associated with undistinguished schlock appearing in a heavily-meta foreign language film. “JCVD” spurned a renewed interest in Van Damme’s career, helping cement his modern day status as a cult favorite. At the very least, the film proved the action star wasn’t going down without a fight.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is not doing too hot. He breaks his back in mediocre action films for unappreciative directors. An ex-wife has taken him to court over custody of their daughter, a fight he’s struggling to win. The scripts aren’t getting any better, the paychecks are getting smaller, and the money is starting to dry up. While visiting his Belgian home town, exhausted from the flight, he enters a post office. His hope is to wire some much needed cash to his lawyer in L.A. Unbeknownst to him, a group of thugs have taken the bank hostage. Van Damme is pulled into their haphazard scheme, forced to participate.

Usually when an actor stars as themselves in a film, the story is making a statement about fame. “JCVD,” oddly, doesn’t go down that path. Perhaps the implication is that Van Damme’s fame is of a particularly precarious nature. He remains an icon in Brussels and, several times throughout the film, fans ask for photographs or questions with the star. One of his captors is an especially passionate fan. He discusses John Woo with his idol and has him kick a cigarette out of a hostage’s mouth. “JCVD” is, in fact, a highly personal tale of redemption.  Jean-Claude wants to make art but those aren’t the scripts he’s getting offered. He’s desperate not to loose his daughter but the deck is stacked against him. When he winds up in a hostage situation, it seems like the latest pitfall in a long string of set backs. However, as the long day goes on, the action star realizes he can save other people’s lives. For real, this time. Furthering how personal a project “JCVD” was for its lead, his actual parents also appear in the film.

Despite whatever ego he might have displayed off-screen, Van Damme devotees know the star’s eccentric, earthy humanity has always been one of his best attributes. “JCVD” builds upon this. He’s always been charming but it’s rare that this much visible thought has gone into one of his performances. The movie creates an intentional contrast between his on-screen persona and his “real” personality. During the hostage situation, Van Damme panics, cowers and hides. During a cab ride with a chatty driver, he’s grumpy, exhausted from the jet lag. He stutters and yells while on the phone with negotiators, visibly nervous. He argues with his agent, who offers him scripts that have already been filmed. When he discovers he’s lost a part to Steven Seagal – who promised to cut his pony tail for the film – he’s dismayed. When the conclusion comes, the star accepts his fate with dignity and grace. Not only is it a compelling performance, it’s a touching one.

“JCVD’s” self-aware tendencies extend pass casting the lead actor as himself. The movie is happy to play with the film format. “JCVD” begins with a stunning single shot. Set to Curtis Mayfield’s “Hard Times,” the long sequence has Van Damme kicking, punching, shooting, exploding, and setting enemies on fire. Amusingly, the long shot is bungled at the end by a faulty prop. The camera pulls back and we realize Van Damme is on a film set, run by a picky but apathetic director. This playfulness continues through the film, with the non-linear storytelling, creative camera angles, and flights of fancy imagined by the protagonist. This tendency climaxes with an amazing monologue. After floating above the set, Van Damme talks directly to the audience. The partially improvised speech has Jean-Claude reflecting on his childhood, long march towards fame, his success, his drug abuse and womanizing, and his current situation. It concludes with him wondering aloud why his dreams came true when so few others do and begging God for a second chance. It’s a deeply personal and powerful moment, clearly the centerpiece of the entire film.

Despite some astonishing moments and a fantastic lead performance, “JCVD” has flaws. The slightly ramshackle script does not have an even flow. Sometimes scenes go on too long, awkwardly rambling into each other. Van Damme is the only character that truly gets developed. The bank robbers often come off as loosely drawn caricatures. The Van Damme fanboy, for example, is somewhat cartoonish while his bullying brother is thinly sketched. Despite the quiet humor of the film, “JCVD” is dourly directed. The entire film is shot in grey, cloud-choked skies always overhead. The interior of the post office is presented through a sickly green. “JCVD” is a funny and thoughtful film but, visually, it’s miserable looking.

Despite Van Damme giving an award-worthy performance and getting excellent reviews, “JCVD” was disappointingly but unsurprisingly absent come award season. The Muscle from Brussels didn’t go home with any statues but “JCVD” did allow for a happy reevaluation of his talent. Suddenly, his films became fondly recalled points of nostalgia and his skills as a performer were better respected. The movies started getting better too. For these reasons and more, “JCVD” is obviously essential viewing for anyone interested in Van Damme and has already developed a cult following of its own. [8/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 2 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[] Dancing
[] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

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