Jean-Claude Van Damme is going to kick your face

At Midnight: JCVD

Midnight Madness kicked off at the Toronto International Film Festival tonight with the zero hour premiere of JCVD, Mabrouk El Mechri's Being John Malkovichesque look into the mind and machismo of has-been ass-kicker Jean-Claude Van Damme. When the Muscles from Brussels stumbles into a hostage situation, life collides with art (well, none of JCVD's previous films could really be called "art," could they?) in a mindbending mashup of the actor vs. the ideal.

The expectant crowd which had circled the block around the Ryerson Theatre for this year's opening show was disappointed by the announcement that the Bringer of Van Dammage would not be attending the screening, due to an ongoing film shoot in Thailand. Van Damme did, however, record a brief, cutesey intro monologue which was piped into the Ryerson on video before the feature film.

The movie itself is quite a surprise. There is little denying that the cloying premise, pitting a "real world" Van Damme against the trappings of his own film franchises, does not exactly feel fresh, but everything about El Mechri's treatment of the story is sharp and original. He unfolds the tale in 4 overlapping, semi-parallel narrative segments, seeing the ongoing series of events - the holdup of a postal office, along with some attendant custody battling over a fictional daughter - from multiple perspectives.

It's also shot like a brick shit house. If the visuals lean on the overly-Photoshopped, El Mechri nonetheless concocts a number of dazzling sequences. He leans heavily on beautifully choreographed long takes (including an opening riff on Van Damme's film ouevre, a 5-minute fight-and-shoot through a war zone which ends with the actor complaining about how hard it is to do so much action in a single shot), and the action throughout the film is clean and well-captured.

But it is Van Damme as an actor who is the true shock here - not only is he appreciably playing at a higher level of game throughout the film than what we might have come to expect from Belgium's most famous export, but he also climaxes the film with a 5-minute straight-to-camera soliloquy on the ups and downs of his public life that is damn near heartbreaking. The performance is a showstopper.

JCVD may not necessarily reinvent the action hero as the next great character actor, but if this flick is the last thing the real JCVD ever does, it'll cap his manic career with an entirely unforeseeable level of self-deprecation and grace. Of course, I would call it far more likely that we will be seeing him on the straight-to-DVD shelves again soon.

Midnight Madness is just getting started! Tomorrow night sees the arrival of Detroit Metal City, Toshio Lee's adaptation of Kiminori Wakasugi's popular manga series about a pop-star wannabe who is thrust into the lead singer role of a Kiss-esque metal band. Then on Saturday night comes Deadgirl, about two teenage boys who find the naked corpse of a young woman. I'll be back at 3 a.m. Sunday morning with my review of the latter.

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