Let's just get this out of the way: Despite being heavily featured in the trailers, marketing, and posters, Jean-Claude Van Damme is neither the star nor the co-star of the new Chinese megabomb known as Jian Bing Man (English translation: Pancake Man). His name is spoken once early on in the film as a teaser that he might show up at some point, and you're sitting there waiting for your favorite action star to show his face in some capacity, and in the last five minutes he at last appears to add the only star quality this hopelessly immature and lost in translation motion picture has going for it. He does the splits (why wouldn't he since that's what he was paid for?), throws a butterfly kick, gets thrown on his face by the star who's wearing a yellow cape, and in the last seconds of the film before the credits roll Van Damme gets the last line: "Iron Man didn't kick my ass!" as if that's supposed to validate The Pancake Man's awesomeness. I'm telling you, guys, I really hope Van Damme got a million bucks for this garbage because if he didn't then there's no justice.
A quick backstory of my appreciation and devotion to Van Damme's work: The first time I saw one of his films in a theater was Timecop in 1994. I've been a fan ever since, seeing all of his theatrical releases any time he's been given one. I was there for everything from Maximum Risk (twice) to Knock Off and Universal Soldier: The Return, and I've sought out every screening of his latest film at every nook and cranny festival if it was playing in a theater within a hundred mile radius. I saw JCVD in a theater, I went out of my way to go see Welcome to the Jungle, Swelter, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, Dragon Eyes, Enemies Closer, Pound of Flesh, and I even went to see Kung Fu Panda 2 because he did the voice of an alligator in it. If the powers that be decide that Van Damme gets a theatrical release, I make sure I'm there no matter what. So when I found out that Jian Bing Man was getting a theatrical release - playing at the Puente Hills Mall AMC Theater, I made sure I was there for the preview night on Thursday at 7:00 PM before opening night. I figured I'd be the only guy in the theater (same as I was when I saw Universal Soldier: DoR, Dragon Eyes, and Enemies Closer), but I was absolutely floored when I entered the auditorium - it was packed! Almost every single seat had been taken by a crowd of young Asians (Chinese, I'm guessing educationally), and I had to find a seat in the last row in the back. After four or five trailers for exclusively Asian films, Jian Bing Man started.
The crowd went wild for this garbage, including the guy sitting next to me who kept looking over to me, wondering why I wasn't as thrilled as he was. From the first frames, the audience laughed uncontrollably, clapped, cheered, and had a great time. The guy next to me kept ribbing me, trying to get a response out of me, but it just wasn't happening. I almost wanted to run to the foot of the auditorium to take a photo of everyone in the theater having a such a good time because not only was I the only gweilo in the place, but I was also the only person not laughing. As in Chinese opera and theater, almost everything in these modern films from that region takes great pains to oversimplify drama, mystery, and comedy to the point of nullifying any sense of personal gratification for going on a cinematic journey along with characters you're supposed to care about. Silly characters are ridiculously broad, with massively broad strokes coloring their temperature when they're in comedic situations. Gay characters (forget subtlety) are parodies of gay characters, and romantic, leading characters are hopeless romantics with melodramatic subplots who are sometimes allowed long, drawn-out (and in slow motion, no less) flashbacks to childhood for no good reason. To top off all of this cinematic ineptitude, the main character (played by the film's director Da Peng, who is just cute enough to play the lead, but just nerdy enough to have everyone in the film consider him a loser) dreams of becoming a superhero known as Pancake Man, whose sole superpower is to throw raw eggs at bad guys. We get slow-mo shots of eggs crashing on grimacing faces, and Pancake Man (who sort of looks like Cyclone from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe) flips around and zooms off into the ether from whence he came. For me, this was not a superhero movie, a comedy, or a spoof of any sort. It is a sad and confounding state affairs to realize that this is what millions of Chinese people are eating up, and to know that this has made over a hundred million dollars and broke every record in its native country just bewilders me.
As for Jean-Claude Van Damme, he plays himself playing a nameless villain Pancake Man fights at the very end of the film. The fight lasts maybe two or three minutes at most. If you saw and were disappointed by Van Damme's appearances in Welcome to the Jungle and Swelter, you'll be glad (I guess) to hear that he kicks more and does more of what you're hoping he'll do in this thing. It's just over so quickly. It's not worth the price of admission, frankly, unless you're a diehard fan (like I've always been). A funny thing about the film is that a Chinese pop band (four dudes with ultra stylish hair and make-up) shows up immediately after Van Damme gets knocked out by Pancake Man, and their purpose in the film was simply to upstage him for the bigger-and-better cameo (at least to the Chinese audience, who cheered when these guys came into the picture), and one of their songs plays on the soundtrack to highlight their gorgeousness. When Pancake Man greets them (they have no purpose in the film other than to simply appear and disappear), they smile and chat with him for a second, and that's when I noticed their teeth. The true mark of Communism is bad teeth, and that's when the film got my first and only laugh. I dunno, guys. This movie's the pits, but if you feel you need to go there, then go there. I did. And I'll never forget the experience.