JCVD


JCVD

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

NEXT:Moonrise Kingdom

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Daredevil


Daredevil

Matt Murdock and Elektra Natchios engage in a little foreplay.

(2003) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Ben Affleck, Colin Farrell, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Scott Terra, Ellen Pompeo, Joe Pantoliano, Leland Orser, Lennie Loftin, Erick Avari, Derrick O’Connor, Paul Ben-Victor, David Keith, Kevin Smith. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

It is a fact that every day, handicapped people show over and over again that they are capable of amazing things. Some are aided by technology but much of it is sheer willpower.

The young Matt Murdock (Terra), who has stood up for his father (David Keith) when neighborhood punks call him a washed-up boxer and a mob enforcer, is shocked one day to spot his loving dad thumping on someone who hadn’t been making his vig. Matt runs off, causing a traffic accident that ends with him being doused by toxic waste, right in the eyes. This leaves him blind for life. However, there is an interesting side effect: Matt wakes up to find he has outrageously acute hearing, including a kind of sonar sense, which allows him to “see” almost as well as any sighted person — better, in some ways.

He also spends time developing his body into a graceful, acrobatic, athletic machine. When his Dad refuses to throw a fight and is murdered, his son is left to seek revenge. The adult Matt Murdock (Affleck) becomes a lawyer. Justice being blind jokes aside, he has a particularly strong streak of wishing to do the right thing in him.

Not content at achieving justice through conventional means, Murdock adopts the persona of Daredevil, utilizing a red leather costume, and becoming a semi-urban legend in New York, one that reporter Ben Urich (Pantoliano) is hell-bent on tracking down. Those who have seen the first Batman movie will note the similarity. His day job allows Murdock to represent the downtrodden, much to the chagrin of partner “Foggy” Nelson (Favreau), who yearns for clients who pay in actual cash, rather than in foodstuffs. Murdock meets Elektra Natchios (Garner), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Avari) who is in bed with the corrupt Wilson Fisk (Duncan), the legendary Kingpin of Crime. When Natchios tries to get out of business with Fisk, the Kingpin brings in a psychopathic master of hurled objects, Bullseye (Farrell) to kill Natchios, which he does, framing Daredevil for the deed in the process. Elektra — who is falling in love with the blind lawyer, swears revenge, not knowing that it is his alter ego she has sworn to kill.

The New York City of Daredevil is a dark, gothic place, not unlike the Gotham City of Batman, and like the Caped Crusader, Daredevil inhabits the shadows and rooftops of a corrupt, dangerous city. The problem with casting Affleck in the role of Matt Murdock is that he is far too likable. Affleck doesn’t carry off the brooding vigilante as well as he does the wisecracking lawyer, so the dual personality of Murdock doesn’t mesh as nicely as it could.

Farrell carries the movie, enthusiastically chewing the scenery and spitting it out so he can chew more. Favreau and Duncan are excellent as they nearly always are; Favreau would go on to direct the Iron Man movies but his association with the Marvel studios began here. His chemistry with Affleck is pretty keen.

The Elektra of the comics is far more threatening than the Elektra of the big screen. Garner, who on paper is an excellent choice to play her, is dispatched with near-comic ease in nearly every fight she takes part in. This compares unfavorably to the character in the four-color version (who is kickus assus maximus to the nth degree) and herein lies the problem with any adaptation of any comic.

Those who love the comic book will inevitably measure the movie against the comic, and in most aspects will find it wanting. Daredevil has always been one of the consistently best-written and innovative of story in Marvel’s arsenal. The movie’s writing denigrates it to an unsophisticated Batman knockoff. Yet, there are moments of poetry, such as when Murdock asks Elektra to stand in the rain, which allows him to see her face using his radar sense. That’s one of the best moments of any Marvel superhero film, ever.

A nice little aside – many of the characters here are named after comic book writers and artists, many of whom who worked on the Daredevil book itself. There are also several people associated with Daredevil’s long run at Marvel (including Smith, Stan Lee and Frank Miller) who make cameos in the movie. In addition, something must be said about the soundtrack which is one of the best for any movie in the last ten years. The tracks from Evanescence are particularly haunting. Also, The final confrontation between Fisk and Daredevil is very nicely done, visually speaking although the whole thing of the little water conduits running below the floor are head scratch-inducing.

Overall, this isn’t a bad movie. There are some deficiencies, true, but there is a large number of things the movie does well. Affleck would have been an excellent Daredevil had he another movie or two under his belt. The most important thing here however is to take the movie on its own merits. Try not to see it as a note-perfect portrayal of the comic hero, because you’ll only wind up disappointed. Judge it for what it is; a better-than-average action-adventure movie, and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

WHY RENT THIS: Better than average action movie. Fine supporting performances from Farrell, Duncan and Favreau.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit of a Batman knock-off. Affleck carries off Murdock better than Daredevil. Elektra a bit too wimpy here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first American movie in which Farrell uses his native Irish brogue.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD features a featurette on the comic book series, a comparison of the “Shadow World” as visually realized in the movie vs. the comic book, three music videos and an enhanced viewing feature which, when an icon appears onscreen, allows viewers to see the same scene from different points of view. There is also a Directors Cut DVD edition which restores 30 minutes of footage to the film, cut initially to bring the movie from an R rating to PG-13.  However, oddly enough, the Directors Cut edition has almost no special features, merely a commentary track and a 15 minute making-of featurette. The Blu-Ray contains both the Directors Cut and all the features from the initial DVD release and as such is the best bet for those interested in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $179.2M on a $78M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Tower Heist

The Great Buck Howard


The Great Buck Howard

Colin Hanks and Emily Blunt are blissfully ignorant that Steve Zahn just grabbed John Malkovich's privates.

(2008) Comedy (Magnolia) John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, Ricky Jay, Tom Hanks, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne, Debra Munk, Wallace Langham, Adam Scott, George Takei. Directed by Sean McGinley

Show biz is heroin. It gets into the system and stays there, mercilessly demanding the entire attention of the poor sap who gets addicted to it, until there is nothing left but a chewed-out husk. Once in awhile, it brings the seductive allure of success and acclaim, but more often than not, disappointment and obscurity.

Buck Howard (Malkovich) is a mentalist (don’t call him a magician unless you want to be chewed out and humiliated) who has 61 appearances on the Tonight Show – the real one, the one with Johnny Carson hosting, not the one with that Leno fellow. However, since his heyday Buck has fallen on hard times, taking his act to smaller and less glamorous venues, but with the never-say-die attitude of a true show biz trooper, cries out in every Podunk Berg he plies his trade in, “I love this town!!” followed by “I love you people!” Both are about as heartfelt as a 10-year-old saying he didn’t eat the cookies.

Howard is in need of a new road manager, and he gets one in the form of Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), who has left law school in search of something more meaningful, much to the dismay of his dad (Tom Hanks, Colin’s real-life pa). Troy quickly discovers that Buck’s unctuous charm is a mask that hides a bitter man who refuses to admit that his best days are behind him, yet is deeply afraid that it is so. He resolutely soldiers on, a relic in a time of extreme street magic and wacky comic magicians, wearing a tux and warbling “What the World Needs Now” in a say-singing manner at the piano. Once upon a time he would have felt right at home with Steve and Edie. Hell, maybe he did.

Buck realizes he needs to jump-start his career and decides to take on a stunt guaranteed to get attention; but at the moment of his triumph, it all comes crumbling down when the reporters in attendance leave to get on a bigger story – a minor traffic accident involving Jerry Springer.

But such is the netherworld that the has-been exists in, a purgatory of missed opportunities and that oh-so-close taste of the brass ring that is never completely swallowed. Yet Buck becomes hip in spite of himself and when a Vegas show opens up for him, the show biz Gods have an even crueler fate in store for him.

McGinley based the movie on his own experiences as road manager for the Amazing Kreskin years ago. Hopefully, Kreskin was nicer than Buck is; Malkovich plays him as a diva with anger management issues, fixing his minions with withering glares and outbursts of vitriol that would do Gordon Ramsay proud.

The younger Hanks goes for a kind of hangdog performance, making Troy both victim and enabler. His romance with publicist Valerie (Brennan) is sad and ultimately distracting, but it is his relationship with Buck that centers the movie. While you get the sense that Troy is meant for bigger and better things, Buck also senses it and in a sense, envies him – and in the end finds his own vicarious success through Troy.

The movie’s pacing is somewhat deliberate; those who like their jokes rapid-fire may find this annoying. For my part, I found it refreshing that the filmmakers chose to take their time and establish atmosphere and characters, allowing audiences access to the movie’s heart. To my way of thinking, that’s much more gratifying than being assaulted by one gag after another.

This is not glamorous in the least; it’s about the vast majority of those who go into show biz with some dream of success and wind up sorely disappointed. In Buck’s case, that success was there for awhile but like a fickle lover, moved on to the next flavor of the week, leaving Buck to wallow in memory trying to recapture something that never can be truly kept.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a real sense of fun and looks at a less glamorous side of the business. Hanks and Malkovich make a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie takes it’s time which may not sit well with audiences used to much faster-paced comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some language issues, as well as a sexual and drug reference or two, but by and large acceptable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck is depicted as appearing on MTV’s TRL show, which had been canceled between the time the movie was filmed and when it was released.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a small featurette on the Amazing Kreskin whose real-life exploits were the loose inspiration for Buck.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $900K on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Skyline