Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscar Overlooked: Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD

Welcome back to Oscar Overlooked, our peek at underrated performances. Today, it's Dammaged Goods inspiration Jean-Claude Van Damme in 2008's lauded but ultimately overlooked JCVD. After making a name for himself in action-karate movies in the 80's and 90's, Van Damme's career slid from number one movies at the box office to direct to video fare after years of marital and substance abuse woes. While Sylvester Stallone would wait out the changing landscape storm and return with Rocky Balboa, Steven Seagal went for the paychecks and cranked out 3 DTV flicks a year and Arnold went on to govern the state of California. Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Van Damme started making the conscious effort to act. Having always been the most sensitive of the swole up cinematic heroes, Van Damme attempted to challenge himself in films like Replicant where he plays a serial killer and a childlike clone, In Hell as a prisoner losing his humanity, Wake of Death as a vengeful gangster out for revenge and Until Death where he starts out as an addicted, horrible human being who's also a cop given a second chance at redemption after being shot in the head. It all culminated in 2008's mockumentary, JCVD.

In the film, Van Damme plays himself, or at least a version of himself. One that used to be famous and is now slumming in DTV fare made in Eastern Europe. He's broke, losing custody of his daughter, considered a joke, a loser losing roles to Steven Seagal who promises who cut his trademark ponytail. Going home to his native Belgium, the Muscles from Brussels gets caught up in a robbery and the local police think the former star has lost his mind and taken hostages. It's a funny, surreal and somber look at the life of a celebrity trying to find himself. Mabrouk El Merchri crafts a dream like dramedy that showcases a tired and weary Jean-Claude Van Damme who trashes his public image. Playing out mostly in French, it's a showcase for Van Damme to laugh, cry and fight, breaking down the 4th wall and inviting viewers to look at his life through non-judgmental eyes. The two notable scenes come at the beginning and towards the end in two long takes; one an action scene the other a monologue of JCVD talking to the audience about his life. While the film as a whole might not be award worthy, Van Damme's beyond honest performance is.

JCVD garnered positive reviews, mainly aimed at Van Damme's meta infused execution. Time Magazine declared the performance to be Oscar worthy while the Chlotrudis and Toronto Film Critics Association nominated him for Best Actor and Performance. Praise from Hollywood came from the likes of Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage to heart throb Robert Pattinson to future Guardians of the Galaxy writer/director James Gunn. The film was released in the U.S. to middling business as Jean-Claude was scheduled to promote the film at screenings, on talk shows and in interviews but canceled last minute to take care of a sick dog. At the same time, fellow 80's and 90's icon Mickey Rourke was back on the scene with The Wrestler, an overrated redemption piece about an aging entertainer trying to make it in life. Stallone had already done it better 2 years before in Rocky Balboa but former actor and not action star Rourke playing a loser clawing back to the top resonated with the Academy resulting in a Best Actor nomination in 2009 and  "welcomed back" to Hollywood after years of talking shit on the business. Rourke hit the award circuit, hard, showing up at events, roundtable interviews, in print, on TV, etc. talking about his painful childhood, not being prepared for Hollywood and all kinds of blah blah blah and crying for the public. Rourke would not win Best Actor that year but his career was rejuvenated, briefly, with roles in big budget fare Iron Man 2, The Expendables and the Immortals. By 2012, the party was over and Rourke was back to Direct to Video fare like The Courier and Java Heat. In 2014, he partook in a Russian boxing match and defeated an opponent paid to lose.

If Van Damme had done the same thing: promoted the film, granted interviews, introduced screenings and cried to reporters, I'm sure he could have given Rourke, Richard Jenkins, Frank Langella and Brad Pitt a run for their award money. Hollywood loves a comeback story but the Academy doesn't like to give credit to genre movies or anything that would make them seem less classy. So a guy known for kicking people in the face, doing the splits and showing his butt was probably never an option. Van Damme chimed in on the subject himself, stating that he would never get an Oscar due to his affiliation with the action film and being pre-categorized by critics. At first regretting not promoting the film, Van Damme claims he was repaid by God as the sick dog lived, he bagged the villain role in Expendables 2 and he's been a part of giant commercial campaigns for the likes of Volvo and Budweiser, managing to stay in the public eye much longer than Rourke without even trying. Or crying.

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