Macho action heroes generally aren't given to self-deprecation, which would undermine their all-important air of steely impenetrability; betraying any sign of weakness, anything beyond determination or anger, makes them seem too human. With that in mind, it's a shock and relief to see the many faces of Jean-Claude Van Damme, the "muscles from Brussels," in JCVD, a canny piece of autobiography that looks at the man behind the legend and the legend behind the man. A decade ago, such a film would be inconceivable for a bankable star like Van Damme, but the new century has left him floundering in straight-to-DVD purgatory, and JCVD finds him in a mood to laugh it off, and in the process, perhaps reinvent himself.
It never gets better than the spectacular opening shot—a long, extravagantly choreographed take à la Touch Of Evil that has Van Damme the movie star kicking, punching, and shooting his way through multiple bad guys coming at him with machine guns, grenades, and even a flamethrower. Though impressive enough as a Spike Jonze-style music-video stunt, the shot is enhanced by some deliberate mistakes—punches missing by half a foot, stuntmen botching their cues by a beat or two—that underline how Van Damme, once an international superstar, has fallen on hard times lately. That feeling is confirmed later, when Van Damme is seen in an L.A. courtroom engaging in a brutal losing custody battle over his preteen daughter. Once he's back in his Brussels hometown, his luck gets even worse when he becomes a hostage (or suspect?) in a post-office robbery.
That dynamite opening sequence, and the two or three scenes that follow, promise something like Van Damme's 8 1/2, a freeform journey into the star's cult of personality and the inevitable bleed between his screen persona and his real life. But the excitement gradually diminishes when the robbery, which initially seems like a pit-stop, instead becomes a permanent stall-out. Granted, there are some effective, often hilarious bits of flashback—like the DVDs and Van Damme karate moves listed as evidence against him at the custody trial—but save for a remarkable single-take monologue directly to the camera, the film's self-reflexive moments disappear. And once that happens, JCVD looks too much like the recent duds from which Van Damme hopes to extricate himself.