JCVD opens Friday in select theaters

Jean-Claude Van Damme’s legacy is perplexing to me, because he’s become world-famous by making movies whose appeal diminishes once you’re technically allowed to see them. Nearly all of his films are rated R, but it’s hard to believe that his audience is an adult one. Admittedly, I haven’t seen most of his movies, but he seems to be an icon without any gravitas: His career doesn’t have the watermarks that other big action stars have. There’s no First Blood, no Terminator. His only reputed artistic achievement is that he brought John Woo to Hollywood with Hard Target, something mentioned more than once in his new film, JCVD, in which Van Damme plays himself as a washed-up action star with money problems fighting a custody battle with his ex-wife.

When I told a friend I was going to see JCVD, he sent me a link to a YouTube video. He told me there was no way he could allow me to go see JCVD before watching this clip called “Bloodsport Final Fight,” an excerpt of the 1988 film that helped Van Damme make his name. It’s a hugely entertaining eight minutes wherein Van Damme takes on an opponent with whom he has some deep personal grudge. About halfway through the match, Van Damme is blinded and starts taking a serious beating. Then he gets on his knees, stares into space, and goes completely berserk, letting out a monster scream in slow motion, his eyes glazed with animal rage. Possessed, continuing to holler like Tarzan, he dismantles his enemy with fourcount ’em, fourconsecutive roundhouse kicks. The scene is absolutely nuts, and while it didn’t quite make me want to run out and rent Bloodsport, it gave me some idea of the zany appeal of the star and his movies. That clip alone had been watched upward of two million times.

In JCVD, Van Damme finds himself in a post office (that I’ll refer to as a bank, because that’s how it functions here) during a holdup and unwittingly becomes the face and voice of the gang, as they force him to be their negotiator. It’s a good thing I got some grasp of the source of Van Damme’s popularity beforehand, as JCVD leans heavily on the idea that the star gets stopped wherever he goes, and that half the city of Brussels would fill the streets to watch if they thought he was robbing a banktwo things I still have a hard time believing.

The opening of JCVD is a marvel, a virtuosic single take that follows Van Damme on the set of a generic-seeming action thriller as he mows down bad guys and rescues a hostage. Alas, none of the directorial artistry displayed in the opening is in evidence for the rest of JCVD. The film quickly adopts a generic, lazy look as director Mabrouk El Mechri moves to a courtroom scene, where jump cuts break up shots of Van Damme mugging reactions to his wife’s attorney. El Mechri shoots the rest of the film in an unbalanced, muddy monochrome, with overexposed light bouncing off shoulders and turning Van Damme’s white sneakers (think Jerry Seinfeld) into glowing oblong moons. It’s hard to believe that El Mechri directed the stunning opening sequence, and if he did, it’s impossible to imagine why he wouldn’t have flexed similar skills for the remaining 90 minutes of his film.

There are glimpses of the movie El Mechri might have been trying to make. Van Damme wears a beaten-up sluggishness that betrays the sad effect that a lifetime of superficial heroism has had on him, and as an actor he is genuine about communicating it to the audience. He’s far too earnest about it and winds up giving it undue pretension, but a more sensitive director could have harnessed Van Damme’s pathos and helped to create a character instead of a polemic in self-pity.

If such soft stuff were excised, the skeletal story in JCVD would not be a bad one for a more genre-based picture. Unfortunately, El Mechri (who co-wrote the screenplay) is more interested in ruminating about the way Van Damme’s art has intersected with his life. In the scene that displays how wasted his lead’s performance is, El Mechri literally takes time out of the bank hold-up to let Van Damme address the camera for a monologue about his broken dreams.

What could have been a crisp little concept movie (how do you say Phone Booth in French?) is instead a limply paced, murky-looking attempt to state the obvious: that big action stars are not, in fact, invincible. For this to be any revelation, though, you’d have to be a 12-year-old seeing your first R-rated moviemine was Van Damme’s Kickboxernot an adult reading subtitles who might relate to the hero’s money problems and legal battle for his daughter.