Those do-gooders are all a bunch a pitiful losers, every last one of them. Want results? You have to go to the Schwarzeneggers, the Stallones, and to a lesser extent, the Van Dammes.
-Bart Simpson, episode 2F17, "Radioactive Man"
When I was growing up, that line infuriated me. I loved Bloodsport more than any Stallone or Schwarzenegger movie -- still do -- and wanted Bart to see Van Damme as their equal. Instead, my hero made so many stinkers that he stopped getting theatrically released in the States about a decade ago.
Then a crazy Algerian director named Mabrouk el Mechri decided to remake Dog Day Afternoon and cast Van Damme as himself. What resulted was probably Van Damme's best-reviewed movie ever, though that's not saying much. He was back in theaters in America, albeit in the arthouse: new territory for the Muscles from Brussels. Finally, his terrible filmography worked in his favor, as critics gave him numerous backhanded compliments for his surprisingly decent acting. "Van Damme proves himself a brave, possibly foolhardy actor, which is more than Steven Seagal ever did," wrote the Chicago Tribune's Michael Philips.
And that seemed to be the general reaction in the arthouse too. When I went to buy my ticket, the cashier told me he'd only seen the first half, "But it's okay." Then he said, "You know, Van Damme's sort of like Steven Seagal -- some of his movies are great, some are terrible." Seagal, I thought. Philistine.
As it turns out, the movie is about the best movie you could expect for a remake of Dog Day Afternoon with Jean-Claude Van Damme as himself: saggy, unwieldy, but funny, captivating, and a welcome return to celebrity for my favorite C-list star.
It is, as is the way of these things, endlessly self-referential. Van Damme is like Malkovich in Being John Malkovich, like Bruce Willis in What Just Happened?, like Pamela Anderson in Borat, clearly having fun playing himself, sending up his own image, gratified to be in a movie better than much of his filmography, and looking forward to the inevitable critical plaudits for showing "range." There are two things that always get a critic to use the adjective "brave": an actor playing himself, and a middle-aged actress doing a nude scene. Van Damme's cagey enough to take advantage of it.
The plot is simple: an aging actor named Jean-Claude Van Damme, harried by a losing custody battle, an agent who can't get him into any good movies (who tells him he lost another part to Steven Seagal), and a lack of funds, gets caught up in a bank robbery that everyone thinks he committed, because he can be seen from the window. Van Damme's character is so tired, so beaten by the world, he could practically be played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
After the opening scene, a hilarious one-shot action sequence from a nameless low-budget Asian film complete with phantom punches and ridiculous weapons, Van Damme rarely brandishes his feet of fury, instead acceding to the robbers' requests and repeating his one catchphrase in the film: "Don't shoot."
The centerpiece of the film is a strange, extended monologue, complete with tears, delivered straight to the camera, as Van Damme talks about his life, his disappointment, and his hope that he won't die, complete with weepy overacting. It doesn't completely work, but like the rest of the film, it's weirdly captivating, and as the camera pans back out to the rest of the scene, somehow hilarious.
Eventually the hostage situation is resolved, and the movie ends without much denouement. It wasn't about plot, after all. It was about the man. And if this movie can do for JCVD even half of what Harold & Kumar did for NPH, it'll be a resounding success. You're back in the limelight, Jean-Claude. Don't blow it this time.