Right off the bat I'm starting with this clip, which is the opening scene of JCVD. It is in no way, shape or form indicative of the rest of the movie. In fact, put in context, it's the exact opposite of the film. But I thought it was an especially evocative opening, and once you've seen the whole thing, it gives some perspective as to how Van Damme sees (at least a part of) his career.
Once I had finished watching JCVD, I immediately had a LOT more respect for Jean-Claude Van Damme as an actor. He really did put a lot of himself up on display here, and the finished product speaks a lot toward some kind of redemption for him - both as an actor and as a person. It's not every day an actor allows a movie to capture parts of their personal life - complete with commentary - in order to seemingly help others on their own path. If I'm reading too much into the intentions of the film, then at the very least JCVD was a cathartic project for Van Damme, and maybe he can start making better movies from now on. I won't be holding my breath, but one can always hope (his IMDB isn't promising).
The film follows Van Damme as himself as he's going through a custody hearing for his daughter. In what I thought was a great touch, his wife's lawyer trots out the dvds of all of his movies and starts describing the different violent ways people are killed in them. "Run over by a car. Decapitated. Beaten to death." etc, etc. This is one example of Van Damme's self-critique that I found especially effective in terms of showing a man looking back at his life. Put another way, there aren't a lot of actors who would want to show the negative side of what they've been doing for the greater part of their entire lives, and certainly not in a movie they're starring in. So, props for that.
After the hearing, he gets a call from his lawyer saying the check he wrote bounced. So, off he goes to the post office to send the money. Oopsie, doopsey; he picked the wrong day to have a shitty legal battle over his offspring. As it turns out, three armed men are holding up the post office when he walks in, and he gets taken as a hostage along with everyone else. The gunmen decide to use him as their mouthpiece, presumably to stay as anonymous as possible. Obviously, the police think Van Damme is the lone perpetrator and act accordingly. The film makes good use of time and perspective, as it jumps between events to give the viewer multiple takes on certain situations. For instance, the first time you see Van Damme going to the post office, it's from the perspective of the video store dudes across the street, as they gawk and ask to pose for pictures with him. Later in the film, you get the same scenario, but from Van Damme's perspective. There are a lot of nice little directing touches throughout, and the film greatly benefits from this style. I was pretty impressed, being that I've never heard of the director before.
Now, there's a scene in particular I'd like to address. About three-quarters of the way through, Van Damme is sitting in a chair inside the post office. He's facing the camera, and all of a sudden he starts lifting upward - chair, camera and all. He lifts above the set, and you can see the fake walls, lights, and everything used to make the film. He stares at the camera and starts talking about his life. He talks about the highs, the lows, his regrets, his disappointments, and everything that made up the last 25 years of his life. It's pretty heavy stuff. The one thing I'll confess to is not knowing how much of his monologue was straight art, and what was really from the heart. Regardless, it all seems legit, and it's god-damned great. There are movies that have attempted to do this sort of thing, but a lot of time they shit all over themselves by doing so. But in the case of JCVD, for some reason it fit. It felt oddly organic, despite breaking all the rules set forth up to the point it happened. Basically, Godard can go fuck himself; this is how you eviscerate the 4th wall.
As I eluded to in my opening paragraph, this is not an action movie. There's tension in the post office, to be sure, but there are no ridiculous heroics by Van Damme this time. He doesn't ever round-house kick a baddy in the face, and he ( ! ) never does the splits in his underwear. In fact, there's a fantastic scene between him and one of the gunmen, where the guy wants Van Damme to do the ol' kicking a cigarette out of someone's mouth without hitting him trick. Van Damme obliges, and the only fanfare he receives is forced applause from the hostages at the behest of the robber. It's actually sad, in the sense that he's being reduced to barking on command to do a parlor trick. It's another example of the way Van Damme talks about his career without actually saying a word.
JCVD is definitely a breath of fresh air. An actor known for playing basically the same dude over and over again opens up and actually plays himself. It's not tongue-in-cheek, it's not hokey or pandering, and it's not something you would expect from Jean-Claude Van Damme. As long as you go into the film without any preconceived notions, you'll be alright.