I have a friend who really, really likes mainstream superhero and action movies, and he likes to bring up a scene in the middle of "JCVD," the new film from Mabrouk El Mechri. Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself (hence the title), and during a bank robbery the story halts to allow Van Damme to deliver a soliloquoy to the audience. He speaks of his drug problems, of his temper and adulterous past. He speaks about what martial arts should mean, and weeps at his perversion of it. He weeps and tells us, "This is my reality." And my friend, sincerely, says "That was so honest. His acting was so truthful." And I agreed with him. The film was surprisingly moving, especially considering Van Damme's, er, singular emotional repertoire.
As the movie has sat with us for a few days, and as we have talked about it more and more, I see our opinions moving in opposite directions. My friend now, more enthusiastically, says "That was one of the most honest things I have ever seen committed to film." And I am inclined to disagree. Is it considered honest because he is playing himself? Wouldn't we usually complain that actors can only play themselves -- or their action hero personas? Is this soft, shattered man just a new persona? And, a broader question, can meta-fiction really be honest? Or, rather, what kind of honest can it be?
All complicated questions, all brought up in a (kind of) action movie starring a man who I remember vividly from my childhood kicking a palm tree until his legs gave out. This is a cool thing, to have these questions in this arena. "JCVD" is consciously far away from that kind of physicality or confidence, and decides instead to focus on the financial and emotional fragility of our aging star. Not only is Jean-Claude losing custody of his child, but she testifies that she is made fun of by other kids every time he comes on TV. The morals of his previous films are called into question. He can't afford his court fees, so he's starring in crap movies (even by his standards) just for the money. And, for the bulk of the movie, is a part of a botched bank robbery. He is a hostage, and a source of entertainment for one of his captors, who happens to be a big fan. No more kicking trees or catching coconuts with your six pack abs. The movie even rewinds when Jean-Claude's old badassery rears its head. He saves the day, the film rewinds, and the SWAT team throw him on the ground and hand-cuff him. Pretty funny.
So, that's the plot. A movie starring a hack, about his own hackery. By embracing this, though, the hack proves himself fresh. It is hopeful to see Jean-Claude, with his single action-star persona, do something he has never done before. It is a breath of fresh air, and by admitting his past faults he proves himself human. The result: you really like this Jean-Claude. He's a good guy, he's trying his best. He knows his faults. This deconstruction of the action hero is definitely the film's greatest strength, and by collapsing it "JCVD" opens a floodgate of ironies, oxymorons, and paradoxes. The question lingering in my mind is this: Does admitting his faults make him honest? He is, after all, just playing against type. We accept his honesty on the predication that we know his previous, supposedly more false movies. Can honesty based on falsehood still be honest? I don't really think so.
I suppose I am skeptical because I have seen plenty of actors have a kind of reverse mid-life crisis, during which the action star ("Rambo") puts on a few pounds and plays against type to rejuvenate his career ("Cop Land") just so he can go back to the same crap twenty five years too late ("Rambo"). Manohla Dargis put it perfectly when she said, "looking bad (or at least less than perfect) on camera is a particular form of vanity for actors." Yet, I still like knowing that people can change, that people are actually people. I want to hope that action movies are getting not only smarter but more emotional, and that stars are ready and willing to play someone different, not just a binary between Superman and fat guy, or their own established personas. If this movie is any indication, the audience is ready, and has enough film knowledge to handle it. This is awesome. The film was entertaining and, yes, it was, at times, startingly honest. Let's just not get too mushy about it.