A film that was set to be called King Of The Belgium underwent significant changes, and would give Jean-Claude Van Damme one of his best ever roles.
Spoilers for JCVD lie ahead.
By 2008, Jean-Claude Van Damme was stuck in a rut. His status as an icon of action cinema, with his legacy including films as diverse as Bloodsport, Kickboxer, No Retreat, No Surrender, the Universal Soldier franchise, Timecop and Hard Target, was in no doubt. But from the early 2000s, beginning with Ringo Lam’s Replicant in 2001, his films would be released direct to DVD in most markets. His days on the big screen seemed over.
Contentedly coasting through one straight to DVD actioner to the next, it seemed as though that was where he would stay for the rest of his career. That isn’t to say that these films should be written off – indeed 2008’s The Shepherd: Border Patrol features what many consider to be some of Van Damme’s best ever fight scenes, in no small part due to the direction of regular Scott Adkins collaborator Isaac Florentine.
In 2007, a screenplay was written called King Of The Belgium, intended as a more comedic vehicle for Van Damme. It ended up in the hands of director Mabrouk El Mechri who, to put it lightly, was not enamoured with the script. Intrigued by the concept however, he decided to rewrite it himself. The plot would see Van Damme end up as a hostage in a bank robbery. Such a story may have seemed rote for him, a ‘Die Hard in a bank’ pitch that provided plenty of opportunities to showcase his signature roundhouse kicks. The resulting script however would end up being the most original, personal project Van Damme would ever tackle.
Almost ten years before David Leitch staged his majestic single take fight scene for the ending of 2017’s Atomic Blonde, Mechri went one further and opened 2008’s JCVD – as the film would be called – with a similar sequence. An amalgam of every clunky cliché from Van Damme’s filmography, the shot takes him through a plethora of punch ups, shoot-outs, one liners and hedonistic heroism. This is the action star we know and love. And that’s exactly the point, because when it ends we see it’s just another film set. Van Damme, playing himself, then begins a downward spiral that includes losing custody of his daughter and a perilous financial situation.
The film is presented in a non-linear style, with the first quarter of the film replayed from Van Damme’s perspective later in the story. It’s this arthouse sensibility that sets JCVD apart from anything else in his filmography. It’s filled with self-referential moments, from the opening shot to a character arguing with Van Damme about the quality of John Woo’s filmmaking.
The highlight of both the film and arguably of Van Damme’s career as an actor comes in the third act.
At his lowest ebb, the fourth wall is broken as he ascends into a spotlight and delivers a six minute monologue in one unbroken take. It’s a remarkable acting showcase as Van Damme, aching with both physical and mental scars, bares his soul to the audience, weeping as he laments the lifestyle he has chosen.
Van Damme drew upon his real-life struggles with substance abuse for the scene, and the result is an astonishingly truthful, personal performance. For any actor that would be a challenge, but here it took on an extra significance because it came so completely from left field. This scene alone garnered praise not only from critics but also fellow actors. In an interview Nicolas Cage commented how he could see “the pain in his eyes, there was a lot of gravitas”. Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw even went as far as to call it a “Godardian coup de cinéma” while Richard Corliss of Time magazine rated Van Damme’s performance as one of the best of the year, second only to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.
JCVD didn’t start the trend of action stars changing their image – Sylvester Stallone won many plaudits for his role in 1997’s Cop Land. But then in 2010 Steven Seagal played his first villain in Machete. Arnold Schwarzenegger showed his serious side in 2015’s Maggie and Jackie Chan barely thew a punch in 2009’s The Shinjuku Incident. But JCVD is unique as a film that so completely tears apart any and all illusions about its leading actor, one who is content to break down his image of machismo to reveal his foibles and failures.
As a result of doing this film, Van Damme’s career continued on an upwards trajectory. He went from starring in low budget action vehicles to his first worldwide theatrical release in a decade, voicing Master Croc in 2011’s Kung Fu Panda 2 (the director of that film, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, is a huge Van Damme fan too). This was followed by Sylvester Stallone paying what may be the ultimate compliment of casting him as the main villain (whose actual character name is Jean Vilain) amongst an ensemble of equally iconic action stars in 2012’s The Expendables 2.
Most of all, over ten years on and JCVD stands alone as a tribute, a criticism, a character study and, ultimately, a towering testament to the resilience of The Muscles From Brussels. He’s never been better.
We’ll leave you with the monologue scene…
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