Van Damme is back! Gaumont's "JCVD," a French-language meta-movie parody par excellence, constitutes the headiest stretch of the beefy star's career since, well, ever.

Van Damme is back! Combined with recent news that the Muscles from Brussels will soon turn auteur with “Full Love,” Gaumont’s “JCVD,” a French-language meta-movie parody par excellence, constitutes the headiest stretch of the beefy star’s career since, well, ever. Playing “himself,” i.e., an international action stud whose bruising child custody battle has him literally going postal, exec-producing Jean-Claude Van Damme reveals heretofore hidden third dimension to his monosyllabic persona. Ho-hum hostage crisis mayhem serves to buttress co-scripting helmer Mabrouk El Mechri’s more experimental stunts, including a tonally opposite pair of longish takes — one a wonderfully absurd ode to star’s martial-arts moves, the other a tear- and prayer-filled Van Damme monologue that must be seen to be believed. An adventurous U.S. minimajor could reap modest B.O. following a June 4 French release.

Playful from its first moments of a balloon-toting cartoon tot kickboxing in Gaumont logo, “JCVD” pumps up “I’m too-old-for-this-crap” cliches via shrewdly deployed in-jokes. Title character is revered for having “brought” John Woo to Hollywood with “Hard Target” in ’93 (“He’d still be shooting pigeons in Hong Kong,” an industry player opines), but on-set colleagues find fault with 47-year-old’s mark-hitting skills. Worse, prosecuting attorney in hero’s L.A. custody case dissects icon’s eye-gouging oeuvre by DVD to assert dad’s history of violence.

Freshly spurned by preteen daughter, jetlagged from trip back to Belgium, and electronically dissed at the hometown ATM, JCVD loses his cool while seeking a post-office wire transfer of euros, only to find he has stumbled into in-progress heist for which he’ll be blamed by cops — and credited, oddly or not, by hordes of placard-waving fans (e.g., “Free Jean-Claude!”).

As before, bulky thesp’s acting is as flat as his pecs are sculpted, but here said limitations are more clearly part of joke within hollow mirror world, where JCVD loses key role to Steven Seagal because latter negotiated to topline sans ponytail.

Script’s sharpest running gag has the concept of celebrity trumping human life in media coverage if not public estimation; even JCVD’s sweet old Maman hints at worries of son’s marquee rep while mistakenly urging him to release “his” hostages.

Incalculably superior in tone, attitude, intent, and intellect to bulk of bodybuilder vehicles, shrewdly produced pic limits limber star’s acrobatics to first and last scenes without great detriment to whole. Gast Waltzing’s horn-heavy score is pleasingly old-school and subtly parodic; Philippe Kohn’s sound mix is crisply immersive; Pierre-Yves Bastard’s widescreen lensing does the job despite de rigueur color-bleaching and scant closeups with which to flaunt Van Damme’s near-Buster Keatonesque deadpan. Exception to that is aforementioned long take wherein weeping JCVD flexes existential about his status as global-screen limb-snapper with backend points.

No kidding.

JCVD

France

Production

A Gaumont (France), Artemis Prods. (Belgium), and Samsa Films (Luxembourg) production of a Gaumont release. (International sales: Gaumont.) Produced by Sidonie Dumas. Co-producers, Jani Thiltges, Arlette Zylberberg, Patrick Quinet. Executive producers, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Marc Fiszman. Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri. Screenplay, El Mechri and Frederic Benudis with Christophe Turpin, based on concept by Frederic Taddei and Vincent Ravalec.

Crew

Camera (Panavision, widescreen), Pierre-Yves Bastard; sound (Dolby Digital), Philippe Kohn; editor, Kako Kelber; art direction, Andre Fonsny; set decoration, Francois Dickes; music, Gast Waltzing; music supervisor, Varda Kakon; casting, Francoise Menidrey. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 17, 2008. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Jean-Claude Van Damme, Francois Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra, Jean-Francois Wolff, Anne Paulicevich.

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