By this point, it should be fair to say that 2008 was an oddly consistent year in terms of the themes explored by the most widely applauded films in of the year, especially where redemption and rehabilitation are concerned. It’s tempting, but too simple to simply point to the political arena of that same year, as the voting population of America elected Barack Obama on a mandate to rehabilitate the country’s image abroad after the ravages of the Bush double feature. While it’s true that Harvey Milk, Richard Nixon, and even George W Bush were offered up to audiences as martyrs of the American political machine and fictional wrestler Randy the Ram bore much the same cross for his excesses while staring at the wreckage he left behind, two other films bring a more cosmopolitan perspective to 2008’s sobering and painful journeys.

The Reader inarguably provided the most honest and searing portrayal of guilt- that of an entire nation laid on the shoulders of the generation that oversaw the worst crimes of modern history and their horrified, uncomprehending progeny- seen on screens in the past year, and yet bears no discernible connection to the Post-Bush American condition in any concrete way. There are lessons to be learned and applied, to be sure, but there is no evidence of the concurrent American introspection in the English led adaptation of a generation defining German novel.

It seems absurd that JCVD should have anything to do with such sobering issues as rescuing the soul of a nation from the crimes of it’s government, and it truly is, except to say that JCVD is no less instructive or revealing of what the cost of redemption is and whether it is to be allowed at all, perhaps even more so than W or Frost/Nixon display within the films themselves.

Jean-Claude himself is an easy corollary to Mickey Rourke’s Randy The Ram, fusing the wreckage of the character to the shared relative state of Rourke’s career, a process that appears naked in front of the audience in JCVD, but only achieved reality in Rourke’s mind for The Wrestler. Where Rourke was allowed to gain his professional vindication wearing the mask of his character, Van Damme is left naked before the audience to plead his case. Taken against these other films, the narrative of JCVD almost necessarily becomes incredibly trivial and vain in examining the fall of an international movie star, but it retains a peculiar strength through it’s metafictional conversation with the audience and it’s methodical stripping down of the barriers between Van Damme and the audience until he finally turns to approach them directly.

Thus, no matter the successes or failures of any other aspect of the film, it is nothing more or less than Jean-Claude Van Damme that will make or break the film for audiences, a heavier risk than even the producers of 8 Mile could claim, as Eminem’s ferocious popularity could easily insulate the box office draw from critical drubbing. JCVD is a film that dares to believe in a man who has little to no reason to believe in himself and demands that you do the same.

The true suspense of the film is not if Van Damme will leave the post office alive, just as it has never been in any of his films. Instead, the suspense is purely metafictional in nature, which is- refreshingly- the foundation of the film. JCVD is perhaps the first of Van Damme’s films in which the screenwriter sought to defy rather than pander to the audience’s expectations and succeed. The premise and bulk of the plot operates as a serviceable European elevation of the Post Tarantino (and perhaps Post Ritchie as well) heist flick, putting it easily in the same league as Spike Lee’s The Inside Man, but it remains the mis en scene for Van Damme’s personal and public reckoning.

Even the effortlessly immersive camera work, a cut above Luc Besson’s heir apparent Pierre Morel on his best days, is there to support and amplify Van Damme, most tellingly and successfully in the film’s two climaxes, that of Van Damme’s character arc and of the heist itself. In the former, Van Damme recognizes that his hotly anticipated mea culpa cannot be sufficient if delivered to his captors or a fellow hostage, and begins to address the audience as his chair and the camera are elevated above the edge of the backdrop to the massive black lights hovering over the set, signaling a break from the supposedly fictional events unfolding below.

In the second sequence, the absurdity of the unfolding scene- Van Damme being dragged out of the post office at gunpoint by one of the criminals- seemingly causes the film itself to shake and threaten to break, much as the metafictional weight of Tyler Durden addressing the audience at the end of the second act of Fight Club caused the film in the camera to shake until it broke free and the perforations at it’s edges were visible. The cause of this disruption turns out to be Van Damme’s wishful fantasy of the resolution, where he elbows free of and roundhouse kicks his captor, before high fiving the SWAT team and saluting the screaming crowd. Order is restored and the scene is replayed with Van Damme elbowing his way free, only to be tackled to the ground and dragged into a police car over the screaming protests of the other freed hostages.

Despite his heroic role in the film and his disarming candor about his personal life and failings, he is not let off lightly. Any traces of a Hollywood ending disappear with the replay of his exit, and he plays out the epilogue from a jail cell for using the heist to “extort” money owed to the lawyer representing him in a child custody case. This punishment he accepts with the cheery resignation of the samurai way that he confesses to wanting to return to in his speech to the audience. The cost of his redemption is harsh, especially for a film that could have given in to vanity at any time it chose, and he is left to his most daunting task without the audience’s help; reconnecting with his daughter from behind a pane of glass.

This is perhaps where JCVD is allowed to shine the brightest, as many of the resolutions of the other films mentioned here were intentionally less than satisfactory. Nixon leaves the sound stage with nothing harsher than a media indictment and a pocket full of cash. Oliver Stone’s eponymous W stands tall in front of his infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner. We leave Randy with his relationships shattered, but his final fate as he flies from the turnbuckle is an ultimate mystery. Irony favors death in victory, but with the box forever shut the cat cannot be said to be conclusively dead.

Other than the tragic, yet almost necessary conclusion of The Reader, JCVD is the only film presented to offer lasting closure and hope for the future, perhaps the only notable film of 2008 to do so other than Slumdog Millionaire, but then it is also the only one that holds itself accountable to it’s audience first and foremost rather than history.


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