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Originally published Friday, November 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"JCVD": A black belt in self-deprecation

"JCVD" is an unexpectedly ambitious vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme. He essentially plays a version of himself as JCVD, a washed-up action hero who returns to his native Belgium to revive his career — and suddenly finds himself in the middle of a real-life hostage crisis.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"JCVD," with Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens, Norbert Rutili. Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, from a screenplay by Mabrouk El Mechri, Frédéric Bénudis and Christophe Turpin. 96 minutes. Rated R for language and some violence. In English and French with English subtitles. Meridian.

Making one of the most curiously fascinating career moves in recent memory, Jean-Claude Van Damme turns action-hero stardom on its head in "JCVD," playing a semi-fictional rendition of himself in a sendup of the genre that made him an international star. Still in fighting trim but now sporting the world-weary visage of a recovered coke addict who's been chewed up and spit out by Hollywood, Van Damme does the unthinkable for an action star: He acknowledges that he's a has-been. Well, sort of.

As the character known only as JCVD, the so-called "Muscles from Brussels" has returned to Belgium, seeking to revive his career after an extended losing streak of straight-to-video turkeys. His latest gig provides the film-within-a-film opening sequence, a cut-rate sendup of long-take "tour de force" action sequences that ends with a shot-wrecking blooper and 47-year-old Van Damme (now 48) complaining of aches and pains.

Almost broke, divorced, frustrated with his lousy agent (he keeps losing roles to Steven Seagal) and just back from L.A., where he lost a child-custody case, JCVD walks into a post-office/bank in Brussels, where the premise of "JCVD" kicks in: If a washed-up action-movie star got snared into a real-life hostage crisis, would he live up to his big-screen persona?

Considering the comedic meta-possibilities of this setup, "JCVD" begs to be better than the half-baked movie it is. It doesn't help that the drab, uninvolving hostage crisis (a weak nod to "Dog Day Afternoon") has been given a sickly grease-yellow pallor that's more distracting than visually justified. Still, there's something seductively clever about the way French director and co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri has fractured chronology (à la "Pulp Fiction") to examine JCVD's plight from various perspectives.

Just before a climactic showdown might occur, Van Damme floats into the rafters of a movie set to deliver an anguished soliloquy about the pitfalls of stardom and his own admittedly poor handling of it. It's a galvanizing, soul-baring moment ... but is that really what it is? Could it be an aging yet still-appealing star begging for redemption and reinvention as a European art-house attraction? Delivered in his native French, Van Damme's surprisingly nuanced performance suggests an intriguing range of possibilities.

Jeff Shannon:

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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