Mr. Brussels flexes his muscles.
(2008) Action (Peace Arch) Jean-Claude van Damme, Francois Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra, Jean-Francois Wolff, Anne Paulicevich, Norbert Rutili, Michel Bouis, Alan Rossett, Gregory Jones, Paul Rockenbrod, Janine Horsburgh. Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri
Everyone goes to the movies and identifies with the star. Who wouldn’t want to be a movie star with all the glamour, the admiration and the adulation that comes with it. What w don’t usually get to see is what happens when the party’s over, when the crowds diminish and the movies go from tentpole releases to direct-to-home-video.
That’s where Jean-Claude (van Damme) is. Once one of the biggest action stars in the world, he finds his phone ringing less often and the parts he covets going to Steve Seagal instead. He is in a custody battle in Los Angeles which he loses when his daughter tells the judge that she is embarrassed whenever one of her dad’s movies comes on cable because her school mates tease her unmercifully about them.
He returns home to Brussels with his tail between his legs. There, he is still respected and beloved as a bit of a national hero, not just for his Hollywood movies but for his martial arts accomplishments. When his bank card won’t work at an ATM, he must go to a post office to get some cash. Just before going inside, he does a little photo op with a couple of video game store fanboys.
Shortly thereafter the post office is taken hostage by armed robbers. The police realize that Jean-Claude van Damme, the legendary muscles from Brussels, is in the thick of it, most likely as the leader of the gang.
Except he isn’t. Van Damme’s fame is being used by the actual robbers to become the center of attention; having the police think he’s involved in the robbery is icing on the cake. The action star finds himself in a situation that is very much like his movies except this is no movie and there are no cameras. Will he survive a situation that is out of control or will the real hero that is inside him save the day?
It’s no secret that van Damme’s career has been in a tailspin. Most of his movies in the last 15 years have gone from being summer staples to being lost on the direct-to-video shelf at your local video retailer. This is the movie that might bring him from those doldrums and back into the limelight (and in fact he has – you’ll be seeing him in The Expendables 2, a major action film with an all-star cast, in August). We see a side to him that is going to bust all the preconceptions you’ve ever had of him.
It was always my impression that van Damme had a wee bit of the arrogant diva in him with more than a bit of ego in him. Here, he is a little vulnerable; unsure of himself and not quite the arrogant movie star I thought he was. He was fully aware that the luster of his stardom had dimmed and there was a bit of uncertainty in his own abilities, something you wouldn’t think that an action star would possess and yet van Damme points out that he is just as human as his audience. In fact, there is an amazing scene near the end of the movie where he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly; some of what he says is cryptic and confusing, but for the most part it is an amazing look at the relationship between a star and his audience, and how it feels when one deserts the other, and how it feels living in a fishbowl where every mistake you make is magnified. It’s an extraordinary six minute soliloquy and if you remember nothing else of the movie, you will remember those six minutes.
Unfortunately, in many ways the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to van Damme’s performance. The plot is a bit pedestrian and while there are some moments that are amusing or full of pathos, there is a real sense that the bank robbers are mostly cliché characters acting like a criminal gang that has been seen in hundreds of movies and TV shows over the years. The scenes just don’t play as genuine and could have use a bit more grounding.
This is the kind of movie that can resurrect careers and hopefully it has done that for van Damme, an actor who has done some pretty fine movies in past years (most notably Timecop, still my favorite van Damme movie although this new one is a close second). If nothing else, it might break the mindset of the movie-going public and more importantly, of casting directors who thought of van Damme as a fading action star whose high-wattage smile and good looks are beginning to be eroded by middle age. This proves there is an actual actor buried in there and a pretty good one at that – who will take a few risks not only as an action star but allow people to see him vulnerable and hurt. One has to think that takes far more courage than to do one’s own stunts in an increasingly digital effect-laden genre.
WHY RENT THIS: Van Damme lets his hair down and is surprisingly brutal on himself. This will change your perspective about action stars in general and van Damme in particular.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bank robbery scenes lack the realism to add a sense of jeopardy.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some language and violence here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of van Damme’s dialogue was improvised. El Mechri didn’t want van Damme to be limited by pre-written words as he has “his own music” in his head.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie was quite likely profitable.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dog Day Afternoon (really!)
FINAL RATING: 7/10