The film JCVD, his first theatrical release in many years, was like a heartfelt apology letter to us. He knows he's no angel. There was that movie with Dennis Rodman, some rough legal battles, drugs, a movie about exploding pants starring Rob Schneider... and just when he thought he had his shit together and was ready to patch things up, he saw us with Scary Movie 1, 2, 3 and 4. The point is, Jean-Claude can't take all the blame in this relationship. We've both made a lot of mistakes.
I've decided to go back to Jean-Claude, determined to make it work. But can his latest straight-to-DVD movies and I rekindle the spark we had back when he first dipped his fists in broken glass and it made me grow a beard? Or when he used the Dim Mak to explode a brick he wasn't even fucking touching and Dr. Karate appeared on my shoulder as a special friend only I could see? Or when every second of Hard Target made my girlfriend pregnant.
Before we start, the film secrets of Jean-Claude Van Damme are extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. Because of this, analysis of his film has to be carefully encoded. Please cut out these official JCVD data decoding funglasses out and apply them to your head. In fact, take out the word "please." If you don't do it, your eyes will only see a series of shapes that will tell your brain to die, so quit screwing around.
Now that you can gaze upon it without going mad, I will be using the standard Van Dammeter for each DVD. It's the standardized system I developed to measure the Van Dammajesty of any movie, except ones without Jean-Claude Van Damme in them. It's a scale from one to 10 that takes into consideration all of the important qualities of a picture. Naked, muscly ass with or without an excuse? Is the romantic lead a sassy female reporter? Is there a muddy fight in the rain, with everything on the line? And of course, splits. Other criteria are also taken into consideration but you'd have to wear five sets of goggles to even read a description of how complicated they are. I'm risking a lot with even how much I've said already.
Imagine this: Nothing survives the apocalypse except for Jean-Claude Van Damme DVD boxes. All future communication and society would be based on the plotlines of his movies. That's the only, but valid, reason I invented this system to quickly categorize a JCVD plotline. All his plots fall into one of five funegories.
A: Revenge over a lost loved one drives Jean-Claude Van Damme into karate-filled circumstances. B: On the run from the law, military or mafia, Van Damme flees to karate-filled circumstances. C: Jean-Claude Van Damme is unwillingly involved in karate-filled circumstances by a second Jean-Claude Van Damme. D: This movie is a rehashing of a different movie, only now it stars Jean-Claude Van Damme. E: If the films plot is described by E, this simply indicates that it is profoundly insane.
Jean-Claude Van Damme as... Ben Archer, a bouncer who kicks ass first and talks never.
The Villain: Ben Archer's wife works for INS, and after finding a container filled with Chinese immigrants, she brings one home with her. Now, what she doesn't know is that this is the daughter of international criminal Sun Quan, played by Simon Yam (Naked Killer 2). You might not recognize that movie because it was also distributed with the title Legal Rape, and then again as Raped by an Angel. Then finally as just Super Rape. In the film industry, starring in a movie called three different kinds of rape is what's called "a triple threat."
Plot: Sometimes people in movies can do crazy things like train oil drillers to be astronauts or decide child custody cases through arm wrestling contests, and it's okay because movies are stupid. But in Wake of Death, the Super Rape of American cinema, there are realistic consequences to things as stupid as an immigration officer stealing an alien from her office. Within 30 minutes, Sun Quan kills Jean-Claude's wife. You know what that means, Sun Quan. Killing Jean-Claude's wife was your first mistake; not wearing a cup was your LAST mistake. Fun with Science: Every time someone types that last sentence, a gas station explodes.
Cinematography: Now you have to realize that this is not only not a classic JCVD movie, it's barely even a movie. Hours pass between action scenes, and after JCVD's wife dies, there's no one left alive that talks. It's like an uncompromising exploration of cinematic violence as art. No car is crashed without a visual metaphor and 40 crane shots. Knocking on a door in Wake of Death requires 15 camera setups and twice as many jump cuts. I can't tell if Jean-Claude is working with a brilliant cinematographer or the International Society for Triggering Epileptic Seizures.
Dialogue: When tracking down your wife's killer, a normal movie would have you interrogate someone, and their words would create information depending on what order they were put in. Sometimes we call this "language." In Wake of Death, it goes like this: Jean-Claude and his friends tazer someone who might know where Sun Quan is, and everyone screams Chewbacca sounds while he's tied to a chair and power-drilled. Then they put the film into a blender with a bottle of ketchup. My working theory is that Wake of Death was made as a way to sneak jerkoff material to serial killers in prison.
Editing: Action scenes are more complicated than you might think to edit together. One wrong move, and the audience has no idea where the other gunfighters are in relation to the hostages or, if you're lucky, the Terminator robots and Krull blades. When the editing is in the hands of someone who might suddenly spend 20 seconds doing a self-indulgent deliberation on the light contrast between brain matter and floor tile, you'll be so goddamn lost. By the time Wake of Death is done with an action scene, it feels like your brain has been fleeing from a gorilla attack in an art museum. Or as Simon Yam knows it, the plot of Super Rape 2: Let's Go Bananas.
Sample Script:INT. Strip Bar - Night
A crane shot spins around BEN ARCHER as he steps over the pool of blood flowing from the dismembered hooker bodies. His shadow trickles across their tits and liquid remains like a ghost.
INSERT: A closeup of BEN ARCHER'S EYE reflects the grim scene. In his pupil, an image of his wife's butchered body dissolves in, flying on the body of a raven... a symbol for the soul's unrest that is not lost on Ben Archer.
"Shit the fuck. Mumble."
BACK TO SCENE: Framed by the foreground naked legs of a stripper corpse, 20 gunmen drive through the wall in a motorcycle with 19 sidecars. The camera follows one piece of wall shrapnel on its lonely flight to the gory floor below. So like BEN ARCHER it is... its purpose gone, yet its destiny so defined.
SLOW MOTION PAN: The chunk clatters to the floor, the ripping sounds of strip bar gunfire its only eulogy. The focus pulls to a tit behind it exploding. A children's choir sings... FADE TO BEN ARCHER'S ASS fucking tenderly in the moonlight, his cheeks clenching against one another so powerfully that the crack threatens to ignite. A raven crows!!!
Jean-Claude Van Damme as... Phillippe Sauvage, an Iraq veteran plagued with Iraq flashbacks.
The Name: How did filmmakers make it all the way to 2006 without anyone thinking of the name The Hard Corps? That's like logging onto the Internet tomorrow and realizing the domain name puddingfarts.com is available. Or being the guy who invented the barbed wire tattoo... it's so simple and clever that you're sure someone must have already done it.
The movie itself might not live up to the title. The Hard Corps is about a former boxer turned business mogul and the rapper determined to kill him. If the Deadliest Warrior did an episode where the historical figures of George Foreman and Suge Knight met in the field of battle, this would be the movie based on it. And George Foreman gets a Jean-Claude Van Damme on his team.
The Rapper Factor: Jet Li and Steven Segal both revitalized their American careers by sharing the spotlight with rappers like Mos Def and DMX. But fuck that. Jean-Claude Van Damme only shares the spotlight with one man: a second Jean-Claude Van Damme. So despite its hip-hop theme and almost entirely African American cast, it's as approachable to the hip-hop community as a haunted hockey game at Burning Man.
A Strange Twist: The boxer hires former soldier JCVD to protect him from the rapper, and here's where it gets insane. Instead of letting Jean-Claude put together a trained security force, he has to select from random people at the gym. If you're hoping there's a good reason for this, you've got to be fucking kidding. If the Beyonder teleported the gym to Battleworld and told them to pick teams for the Barbecue of Destiny ribs cookoff, it would make about as much sense in relation to the rest of the screenplay.
JCVD, accustomed to madness, is unfazed by this assignment. He selects a small Asian man doing shitty taekwondo and another guy doing capoeira cartwheels. And a cowboy. I think in the director's cut he also gets an Eskimo and a teenwolf, who fit together to form a truck. He almost overlooks a miniature kickboxing girl until she proves she can fight by standing toe-to-toe with Jean-Claude's kneecaps and wildly missing with 300 punches in a row. Keep in mind that JCVD is an actor and a martial artist, the two tiniest genres of people aside from chocolate factory workers and shrink ray victims. So the fact that she came up to his waist means she is negative two-feet tall. And now she's on the Hard Corps.
Or is She? After a 15 second montage of the Hard Corps training, nearly all of them are never seen again.
Screenwriter: "Jean-Claude, I can't help but notice that there are all of a sudden a bunch of random martial artists in the middle of the script. Did you paste in a couple pages of Bloodsport?"
JCVD: "You can have dat... free of chirge."
Screenwriter: "Great, but it really screws up OWW! You punched me in the balls!!!"
Jean-Claude Van Damme as... Detective Anthony Stowe, worst cop ever.
Challenge: After starring as two different people in so many films, JCVD may have gotten cocky about his acting chops. But can even he carry a movie without a single good guy and no splits?
I Swear to God, This is Really the Plot: The first thing JCVD does is screw up an undercover art smuggling sting and get his female partner killed. Then he kicks the hell out of her mourning husband. He blows off a date with his wife to drink alone in a bar where he and a barfly discover that he's a cop and she's a hooker. "I won't charge you if you won't charge me," he tells her, right before it cuts to him pounding her over a pool table. To give you the moral barometer of the film, that's the only line in the movie that doesn't have the word fuck in it.
It Doesn't Stop: He pulls out as she shouts after him, "I don't care if you're a fucking cop! You're not a fucking human being!" He tells a valet to fuck off as he parks illegally at a karaoke bar where his wife tells him she's pregnant with another man's baby. I think he mumbles something about fucking birth control, but between the anger and him being Jean-Claude Van Damme no one will ever know for sure. I did understand him when he growled, "Don't try to fuck the valet on the way out. Fuck." Mirroring much of his early work, it seems to be the first screenplay written entirely during painful dick accidents.
Whew. He beats the crap out of two tow truck operators trying to tow his car, buys and injects heroin, then passes out by a dumpster. The next day, he rats out a retiring cop for asking for a harmless favor. After he loses his pension and almost shoots himself, JCVD tells him, "You deserve it." By this point, I'm sure they made this movie only because it's illegal to film a baby panda being slowly punched to death.
You're a Loose Cannon! In most cop movies, the police chief hates you, and the mayor is always up his ass about it. In this movie, it's "Good morning, scotch-soaked heroin addict with a dead partner! Here's a special assignment!" Well, surprise: Van Damme blows it. A few minutes later, he gets executed with a gunshot to the head.
The End, Right? In a gruesome ER scene, doctors manage to keep the worst character to ever live alive. As they pull the bullet out of Van Damme's head, it's strangely realistic. Maybe too realistic. I wouldn't put it past the monsters who made this movie if they just killed one of his stuntmen. Which might explain why several of the steaks that craft services put out the next day had tattoos.
Let's Recover From a Coma, Gang! Since no one in this movie is nice, his wife's new boyfriend mocks Van Damme's recovery with, "From asshole to vegetable in one bullet!" Van Damme slowly relearns how to walk and talk, and I intend no insult when I say that he performs not knowing how to do these things very well. In fact, I'd say "Recovering Coma Guy" was the role he was born for if he hadn't already played "Gay Karate Man" in Monaco Forever and "Timecop" in Timecop.
Spoiler Alert You know in John Woo movies when the two adversaries hold a gun to each other's heads? If you're like me, you've always wondered what would happen if they both pulled the trigger. Until Death answers that question, and it turns out that it's Duh. I guess I shouldn't have expected a happy ending after 90 minutes of heroin and executions.
Jean-Claude Van Damme as... Jack Robideaux, a cop who counters his lack of personality by carrying a bunny.
Touchy Subject: When a cop is transferred to a border town and put in charge of keeping illegals out, a normal movie would have him start as a hard-nosed xenophobe that slowly empathizes with the hardships these proud people are trying to escape. Well, Jean-Claude doesn't make normal movies-- he kicks them until his leg breaks. In this movie about border crossing, he only meets two Mexicans, and neither time does it go well.
His First Mexican Encounter: Van Damme sees a group of illegals crossing the border, and tackles one. He's wearing a C4 vest and trying to do something that sounds like talking but isn't. Untrained in bomb disposal, Van Damme starts fiddling with wires, because why not? The bomb squad guy shows up and makes him go away, probably moments before he tried kicking it inert.
Dramatic Defusing! The bomb squad guy shouts, "It's an optical fiber based CLC casing!" to Jean-Claude and several other people who wouldn't know what that means. If he expected someone to say something about how smart he was, no one did, and he snips his first wire. Oops. He briefly exchanges with the Latin gentleman the international expression for "oh shit," and dives away from him and his exploding chunks. It seems like the only real training he received in bomb school was the ability to awesomely somersault away from detonating Mexicans, so he might as well have let JCVD take a crack at it.