A re-animated corpse
in Universal Soldier. A cloned serial killer in Replicant. A time-travelling cop in, er, Timecop. The Muscles from Brussels has played a lot of out-there characters in his 25-year career, but in his new movie, Jean-Claude Van Damme faces his toughest role yet: himself. And no, he's not fighting his evil twin again - that was Double Impact.
Yes, Van Damme has gone meta. JCVD opens with an impressive continuous shot of Van Damme scrapping his way through bad guys like a videogame character with infinite lives. But when the director yells 'Cut!', we meet plain old Jean-Claude Van Varenberg, the man behind the aching muscles. On-screen, JCVD is a killing machine; off-set, he cuts a much less imposing figure. Ageing and tired - a desaturated palette bringing out every crag in his 47 year-old face - Van Damme is facing career meltdown, a draining custody battle and tax troubles. One dog day afternoon, he strolls into a post office, straight into the middle of a hostage situation - but the resulting media storm might just be what his career needs.
Van Damme gives a remarkably candid performance, portraying himself as a loser without ever playing the fool - writer/director Mabrouk El Mechri certainly sticks the boot in. The script flirts with farce but never commits, meaning there's an uneasy balance between satire and serious drama. The premise is winning, but you do feel a comic slant would better serve the over-the-hill action hero concept. The only moment of levity comes when JC learns he's lost a role to Steven Seagal because he promised to cut off his pony-tail.
Otherwise, JCVD is surprisingly downbeat, culminating in a five minute to-camera confession where Van Damme pours his heart out about his life, loves and poor career choices - it's hardly Mickey Rourke baring his soul in The Wrestler
, but you sense the tears are real all the same. It's a watershed moment in Van Damme's career; the moment you realise the crazy bastard really can act. It's a tragedy of sorts that most of his fans won't even care.
With Sly Stallone's B-movie par excellence The Expendables on the horizon, it's an exciting time for the washed-up action stars of yesteryear, and thanks to JCVD, Van Damme is as well placed as any to take advantage of the need for nostalgia. With all-new career opportunities knocking, where next for the Muscles from Brussels? IMDB says Universal Soldiers: The Next Generation. Ah, easy come easy go.
JCVD is released in cinemas today and on DVD on Monday. Click here to buy it from Amazon.com