Big Jim NEW(ish) review: JCVD

I clearly remember, as a young man, going to see a film called, "No Retreat, No Surrender." My friend Adrian and I somehow got my parents, I believe they stayed through for it, to take us to the Fort Clayton theatre in Panama to see this because it promised to be so awesome. Just to clarify, we lived in Panama, the country, at the time. This wasn't some hard to find film that we had to track to a Latin American country just to be able to watch it on its original release.

There is a possibility my parents were forced to endure this, I don't remember. The few things I do remember are:

My friend and I feeling like bad asses because we got to sit away from whatever parents brought us.

A plot that 34 year old Jim calls laughably ridiculous, but that 11 year old Jim called the greatest movie ever made.

An overacting, big eyed martial artists who sat by doing the splits between the ropes in his corner.

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(pictured- "acting Russian," and dudes staring at Van Damme's ass)

I am going to be honest. The first of these seems like a particular dick move on my part. Dragging your parents to something of this magnitude is one thing, abandoning them to enjoy it on your own kicks that up a notch.

The plot... In this case, Wikipedia has done a fine job outlining this, and I will let it speak for me.

Jason Stillwell is a young karate student who trains in his father's Los Angeles dojo. One night after training has finished, the dojo is visited by members of an organized crime syndicate. Jason's father is attacked and has his leg broken by Ivan Krushensky, the hired thug of the boss.

The family moves to start a new life in Seattle. Jason has a hard time adjusting and is picked on by the local bullies. One night after being beaten, he is visited by the ghost of Bruce Lee. After being trained by the ghost, Jason goes from a below average fighter to near invincibility. Local fighters organize a fight in an arena between themselves and fighters from the crime syndicate, setting the scene for Jason to meet up with Ivan and settle the score once and for all.

I really wish I could call this synopsis a base exaggeration or an egregious lie, but it is not. This is the actual, factual plot of this film. Someone watched "The Karate Kid," and thought, "You know what this movie is missing? A Russian bad guy! We hate Russia! This is a slam DUNK!! Also, ghosts. Why weren't there any ghosts in it? What? Did people stop liking ghosts all of a sudden? Bruce Lee, he did karate, right? He did karate good and people liked him for it. SOMEONE FIND ME A TYPEWRITER AND SOME MONEY! Looks like I'm in the movie bid-ness!"

Bruce Lee has my favorite bullshit ghost sensei martial arts training lines in film history in this film. That is a very specific category, I know, but I created it SPECIFICALLY for this line.

Using a glass of water and a glass of Diet Coke he passes this pearl of ghostly kung f... I mean karate wisdom on. "This is the cup of your knowledge (lifts the water), this is the cup of my knowledge (lifts the Diet Coke)." He then proceeds to dump the water out and fill the cup of Jason's knowledge with is carbonated karate wisdom. It blew the ass off my 11 year old mind.

Why am I mentioning a film so bad that it doesn't have a DVD release (for perspective, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is out on DVD, this isn't)?

I am mentioning it because of reason number 3. This movie came out in the 80's when the prevailing attitude toward multiculturalism was, "an accent's an accent, foreign people are interchangeable!" So when casting a Russian martial artist, the criteria were apparently, in order of importance,

1) Martial arts ability.

2) Muscular physique.

3) Ability to so cool splits.

4) Over the top facial expressions.

.....

100) Cooking ability

101) Actually being Russian, having visiting Russia, having met a Russian, having heard a recording of a Russian, or being able to locate Russia on a globe (in the 80's this last one would have been MUCH easier).

Given these exacting standards the choice seems to make itself, and the world was introduced to Jean-Claude van Damme. This film would lead to a string of very popular martial arts movies, a startling number of which required him to dance, and an even startling-er number required us to see his ass.

Surprisingly, he became very popular in the mid to late 80s/early 90's Hollywood martial arts renaissance. Unsurprisingly, that popularity didn't last very long. By that I mean it didn't even last into the mid 90's. Not to say he didn't continue making movies, oh, God did he ever keep making movies. Those movies just never really found their way into theatres. This isn't to disparage the man. Fame is a tricky bitch, just ask Leif Garrett, who I am trying to disparage.

He retained enough global fame to keep making movies, just not enough for them to be any good. This wasn't something that just happened to him. Steven Segal, Jeff Speakman, Don "The Dragon Wilson," and others were victims of the Hong Kong invasion. Suddenly, they were competing with Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Yung Biao, and Sammo Hung. When you are competing with fast, kinetic action done by people who literally risked their lives doing their own INSANE stunts, and who are being pushed on the public by Quentin Tarantino at the height of his popularity, you are going to lose your audience.

So, Jean-Claude and the others vanished into the world of direct to video. Then something interesting happened. Van Damme and Segal returned. Not in the way one would necessarily expect, but they came back.

Segal returned in his own reality show, "Steven Segal: Lawman," where he attempts to slap the crime out of New Orleans and brings the idea of "delusions of grandeur," to almost UNIMAGINABLE heights.

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Van Damme returned in JCVD, a critically acclaimed, post modern take on fading celebrity and the idea of "the hero" influenced by the works of Jean-Luc Goddard.

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That's right, this is an honest to GOD Goddard inspired Van Damme film! I know what you're thinking. 15 years ago, hell 2 years ago, if I had told you that Van Damme would be in a modern French New Wave film about identity, you would have rightfully laughed in my face. You can still do this, but I can back my shit up now.

JCVD is, first and foremost, an entertaining film. But to say that is to undermine what it really is.

Returning to Brussels from America, where he just lost custody of his daughter, Jean-Claude is forced to stop at a post office to get a money transfer because his bank account is empty, he has no cash, and his credit cards aren't being accepted. He is also about to be released by his attorney because his check bounced. This isn't some comedic approach to show you how down and out this guy is, it is a very realistic portrayal of a man who is as down on his luck as a man can be. While at the post office he stumbles onto a robbery, is taken hostage but the police think he is actually pulling the robbery.

I was surprised at many things in this film. Firstly, Van Damme can act. I don't mean that in a, "he can get by on screen," way, but in a, "holy crap, might he be a good actor," way. The most impressive moment is a monologue, delivered directly to the camera that is riveting. The monologue brings the second big surprised. Van Damme appears to be completely devoid of ego in this film.

Would Segal deliver a monologue in any film where he states, "It makes me sick to see people... who don't have what I've got. Knowing that they have qualities, too. Much more than I do," or that shows him begging his agent to get him a part in a studio film at scale (actor minimum wage) just so he could be in a studio picture, or taking a part in a bad sequel to a bad movie, just so he could have some money to pay his lawyer so he might get his daughter back? Would he put a scene where his child talks about the embarrassment and harassment he caused them? "Lawman proves that he lacks the self awareness to do this.

So, what does this film tell us about Van Damme? Well, he might be silly, but he understands that he is silly. He isn't the star he once was and he has accepted that. In other words, he has grown up and actually has something akin to perspective about his life and fame.

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(pictured- grown up perspective)

Yes, this is a movie and not real life, but for an actor to take a role as themselves that puts this much on the table is remarkable. He humbles himself in this film. Not in any grand way, but in a very simple and powerful way. In laying himself bare as being a flawed human being. This is a ballsy movie that ultimately delivers.

That being said, this is a very stylized film. It uses many different narrative tricks and gimmicks and I have seen it criticized for that. Those criticism are bullshit. Every director uses these tricks and gimmicks, many very good directors use quite a few of them in their films. That is what directors do.

I chalk a great deal of the criticism of this film (there isn't much, but there is some) to cinematic snobbery. There are people who simply won't get past the fact that it is a Van Damme movie, even though it isn't a "Van Damme movie," if that makes any sense. This is a very honest and moving piece of film if you allow it to be.

Let me be clear. You need to check your Jean-Claude baggage for this movie. If you bring it in you will be disappointed and miss a very good film. If you leave it at the door you will see something different, something unique and fresh, something risky and honest. And isn't that something we have been lacking lately?



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