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Jean-Claude Van Drama: Who would think it wouldn't stink?

When the Netflix Web site recommended JCVD, a 2008 project wherein action star Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself in a so-called "comic action" film, I chuckled. Netflix must be nuts, but I added it anyway, mostly with the intent of devoting a column to how poor I was certain it would be. But, as I am often wont to do, I prematurely judged the proverbial book by its cover--er, synopsis--and wound up pleasantly surprised.

First, I didn't know this until after my viewing, but JCVD was a hit with critics. Time magazine even suggested Van Damme deserved an Oscar. Whaaat?! I don't know if I'd go that far, but it's definitely the man's most mature film, if that's saying anything.

Embroiled in a child custody battle, a penniless Van Damme returns home to Brussels, Belgium. Upon his return, he's taken hostage during a bungled robbery and mistaken by the police for the culprit.

Let me tell you, there may be awkwardly funny moments, but this ain't no comedy. If it's a ridiculous quasi-biographical action comedy you want, locate Bruce Campbell's My Name is Bruce, released earlier this year on DVD. Because JCVD is dark in both mood and lighting, this feels a little more like 2005's Unleashed in which martial artist Jet Li flirted with dramatic action.

I get why critics would enjoy this film. When Jim Carrey branched out from comedy, the results were spectacular. Similarly, Van Damme blazes a new trail here, and a few of his scenes--especially a six-minute monologue when he's alone with the camera, seemingly baring his real life soul--are drenched in emotion. Good for him, and good for the movie. While it doesn't make him Paul Newman or Johnny Depp, Van Damme is perhaps more than just the Muscles from Brussels.

I should probably mention that the dialogue is about 90 percent in French--Van Damme's native tongue. An English soundtrack can be activated, but the crummy voiceovers are distracting. I managed to enjoy it with subtitles alone. Besides, I speak un peu de Francais.

Though he hadn't released a major Hollywood movie in a decade, and though his acting during his heyday was less than stellar, Van Damme takes a bold, very likeable step forward in JCVD. Much as I hate to admit it, you were right, Netflix. This time. But if I find you pitching me a Steven Seagal romantic comedy, so help me ...

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