DOUBLE FEATURE: "JCVD" dir. Mabrouk el Mechri (2008) + "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning" dir. John Hyams (2012)

"Nothing! I've done nothing! And I might just die in this post office..."                                                               --Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD 
JCVD is not an easy sell.  Perhaps too much of an "art film" for fans of Jean-Claude Van Damme's usual fare, and too rooted in an intimate understanding and portrayal of Van Damme for those who have largely ignored (or forgotten) the career of the Belgian actor who experienced his commercial success in the late 80's with movies like Bloodsport and Kickboxer, it should be noted that JCVD is one of the great movies from the last decade.  Though not nearly as high profile/budget as The Dark Knight or No Country For Old Men, in my thinking JCVD completes a triumvirate with those films, marking a particular period of movies grappling with the identity of the post-millenial Hero.  Along with the ambiguous heroic positioning of Christopher Nolan's Batman, in 2008 alone we had Iron ManThe Incredible HulkHancock, another "Indiana Jones" movie, and the self-sacrifice of Clint in Gran Torino.  But none of those come at the Hero mythology in quite the way that Van Damme is "reincarnated" here.  Amid courtroom battles with his wife and daughter and being beaten out of roles by Steven Seagal, the hero of JCVD is primarily one of a celebrity living with the harsh transparencies of the media age.

Remember, Van Damme has been quite off the radar for some time. Though most have a sense of who he is and what he does, his survival is linked primarily to the video market; an aspect cleverly integrated into JCVD, which uses an actual video market--"Video Futur"--as a key location in the film.  When we meet the Arab proprietors of "Video Futur" they are discussing the stereotypical casting of Arab bad guys in a litany of 80's action flicks as Jean-Claude himself happens by their store, a clever cue as to how French director Mabrouk El Mechri wants to re-frame not only our perception of the hero, but of the cultural biases constructed from within his profession.  The single-take approach that tracks the encounter with the Video Futur guys mirrors the opening sequence, a lengthy single-take action sequence that propels us into the film before we have a chance to create a sense of "reality" in the world of JCVD.  From the encounter at the video store we follow Van Damme as he inadvertently talks his way into a hostage situation at the local post office, where two hapless criminals use Van Damme as their go-between in a fashion that brings to mind Dog Day Afternoon (note the John Cazale hair-do).  The media event that emerges from the hostage situation at the heart of the film's story is not new territory, and neither is the non-linear storytelling.  Stripped down to its heist-pic bones, JCVD would still be a pretty good action picture, maybe reminiscent of an early Tarantino knock-off.  And, even a movie about Jean-Claude himself might be appealing (though what I saw of his attempt at reality TV last year was not promising).  But, from those two base components, he and El Mechri manifest a recombinant genre piece with rare qualities:  an unpretentious, character-centered, meta-Action-flick.

Van Damme's acting in the film is truly remarkable, and not only in regards to what is maybe the most oft-noted scene:  a lengthy monologue delivered straight into the camera that has followed our hero/hostage into the lighting rigs above the film's set.  As Van Damme, the camera, the lights and the narrative all hover above the action, the actor indeed delivers a complex and heartbreaking monologue that is a fascinating blend of Brechtian theatrics and Straight-to-Video celebrity.  But it should be noted that Van Damme is excellent throughout the film, exacting and spontaneous in his response to each and every character he encounters.  I don't attribute this to Van Damme essentially playing "himself" here, as I don't believe that necessarily makes the job any easier.  JCVD adeptly details a number of disparate characters, large and small, each with their own distinct (and extreme) motivations, and Van Damme has the difficult job of negotiating his identity realistically within each of their spheres of expectation.

Even in the scenes that satellite the central hostage situation, each carefully placed in a way that eventually informs and complicates the central action, Van Damme exhibits an expressive restraint.  Many of the scenes that depict the professional and personal life of the actor are done in lengthy single takes, marking El Mechri's trust with Van Damme's ability to carry a scene in his reactions alone.  Of course, El Mechri sets us up for long takes in the elaborate Steadicam sequences, but his risk with the static long takes are at the heart of the emotional impact of the film.  In one of these static takes we see him in profile speaking with his agent, and in another through a backseat taxi window, the reflective rush of trees and sunlight moving across his shifting countenance as his driver relentlessly hounds him with questions and criticisms.  Ultimately, El Mechri is not only playing a shell game with the chronology of the film, but also carefully building these long takes to a final moment of static examination that places Van Damme simultaneously in a new genre context (the prison film) and the confines of his own very real struggles (or, at least, struggles we assume are real for Van Damme).  Even though El Mechri leaves us in one of the most cliched sets of melodrama, as Van Damme confronts his daughter through a prison telephone, what is captured in this moment carries both the weight of the unreal terrain we've traversed and an achingly real depth of character, which is no easy balancing act.

After 2008 the now 50+ year old actor has been going through an odd transformation in his films, most notably in the works of action director John Hyams who picked up the Universal Soldier franchise in 2009 with Regeneration and Day of Reckoning in 2012.  Hyams also directed Van Damme in a little-seen take on the "drug dealer take-down" genre, Dragon Eyes, featuring Cung Le (recently of RZA's luke-warm directorial debut The Man With the Iron Fists).  In Dragon Eyes, Hyams begins to define a role for Van Damme that uses his age and experience to a fairly effective end.  In both Dragon Eyes and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning Van Damme has become a contemplative presence, equal parts warrior, sage, and celebrity icon.  If JCVD showed us an unexpected capacity for naturalism in the actor's abilities, then the Hyams' films show us an almost minimalist approach.  Both Dragon Eyes and the Universal Soldier films, though Van Damme is not the central character in either, feel as much like reflections on the man himself as they do exercises in staged violence (which, granted, is a big part of their appeal).

Dragon Eyes
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
But Dragon Eyes is just not a very good movie, barely held together by Hyam's adeptness at shooting action (which would have served RZA well in his debut) and a bit of scenery chewing by Peter Weller--or, rather, Dragon Eyes might look better in light of the significant accomplishments of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which manages to make a smart, suspenseful, and economical bloody thriller from limited resources.  I'm not the first to write about the unexpected surprise that is the 4th entry in the Universal Soldier series--for instance, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's review of the film likened it less to the original Universal Soldier of the early 90's, and more to the likes of David Lynch's Lost Highway or David Cronenberg's Videodrome.  The comparison is somewhat apt, but I think US:DOR is more straightforward than either, its strengths residing in different dark corners.

For one, the film adopts a premise that would admittedly turn most people off from the get-go (yes, it involves genetically modified super-soldiers), and then proceeds to take it seriously.  That this fact is not apparent from the beginning of the film--a beautifully executed and shocking attempt to confine the viewer's perspective to the main character's POV--is maybe not to the film's advantage, as it tests our sensitivity to violence almost immediately, as well as our attitude toward witnessing Van Damme in an overtly villainous role.  But, the payoff is the unique way the film earns its violent excesses in the detailed unfolding of its premise, as Scott Adkin's "John" pieces together his peculiar existential crisis (echoing one of the progenitors of all Sci-Fi:  Mary Shelly's Frankenstein).  This measured unfolding takes us through many dim corridors, and eventually into the underground resistance presided over by a deranged, vocal Commander (series staple Dolph Lundgren) and the mostly silent, perching Luc Deveraux (Van Damme).  As John begins to discover his true nature--a constructed, hallucinatory identity--the design of the film itself begins to descend into some eerily recognizable realms of mediated reality.  The First-person perspective that initially seemed like a clever stylistic choice morphs into a chilling combination of a First-person shooter game and Apocalypse Now.

From this point on, the trajectory of the narrative behaves very much like that of a video game.  Of course, video game-to-film transpositions have a grand history of failure (as evidenced in another Van Damme vehicle, 1994's Street Fighter).  Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning reminds us, in one sense, that there's no reason for that to be so.  In fact, simple paths of action make for some of the most engaging stories, especially when it comes to genre films.  The difference here is that something is at stake.  And, this is a primary difference between what Hyams achieves and what is truly lacking about much of its Action/Sci-Fi/Hero-Cycle brethren.  Though the recent trend in criticism is to label Hyams as a "Vulgar" auteurist, in light of US:DOR it seems that label should be reserved for those who did exactly the opposite of stepping up to the plate late in a franchise.  What's truly vulgar is pissing all over an already established and beloved series in search of a bit more box office, as with Sam Raimi (take your pick:  Evil Dead, Spider Man, or The Wizard of Oz).  In contrast to the sort of production budget excess that has destroyed the creative impact of a once revered director like Raimi, Hyams' comparatively cheap production value necessitates design choices that ultimately make US:DOR unusually beautiful and theatrical in a way that most Action flicks try to actively avoid (and, once again, that still make the design and special fx of the original Evil Dead's so enduring).  A current Raimi-sized budget would never have produced the makeshift quality that makes the underground lair of the super-solders in US:DOR so perfect; like the men who dwell there, filled with constructed and abandoned aggression, the structure is a misshapen masterpiece existing in a liminal reality.

Unlike the overt meta-move of "ascending into the light" from JCVD, the numerous, angled fluorescent tubes and deliberately placed work lights that line John's final, blood-soaked path to regain his world-view and destroy Deveraux moves us more subtly from the slightly unreal video game mode to the wholly Surreal.  Deveraux's face painted half clown-white/half pitch-black suggests less the elegance of the "Yin/Yang" symbol (central to the Chinese traditions of martial arts that Van Damme has aligned himself with throughout his personal and professional life) as it does the severed consciousness of a person no longer sure whether or not he's living in a hallucination.  The feeling must be a bit familiar for Van Damme.  The stage lights have shifted, and, like Deveraux, it's time to relinquish his position, all the while wondering if it ever mattered in the first place.

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