I know that most Readers of First Things have a huge stockpile of Jean-Claude Van Damme films. There’s nothing to be ashamed of here. We can speak frankly about such intimate matters. This blog is a safe space to confess, to come clean. And spare me the whole Chariots of Fire, Man for All Seasons, and Shoes of the Fisherman baloney. If I came to your home right now, I’d see VHS and DVD copies of Hard Target, Blood Sport, Universal Soldier, and Maximum Risk strewn about the house. And you’ve seen Time Cop so many times, you mouth the dialogue and don’t even realize it.
So no doubt you’ve already seen
JCVD —Van Damme’s apologia pro vita sua , in which he both mocks and justifies his action-flick career. But you may have missed the theological import of one key scene.
For those who decided to wait until JCVD came out in the Director’s Cut Blu-Ray edition, with alternate endings and voice-over commentary, Jean-Claude Van Damme is here playing himself, an aging martial-arts action hero whose life is filled with court appearances, rabid fans, and no respect. He’s tired of being part of international package deals that make money for everyone behind the camera and leave nothing for the actual budget. He’s desperate for a big-time Hollywood shot—but he can’t even beat out Steven Seagal for a role, and Seagal’s like a hundred and seven.
One day, eager to transfer some money from a bank/post office in Brussels to pay the lawyer who has been seeing him through an agonizing custody battle, Van Damme gets caught up in a robbery of same. To make matters worse, the diabolical dimwits make it look to the outside world as if Van Damme is in fact the one pulling off the caper.
So, will JCVD prove to be a real-life hero? A self-pitying villain? Or a victim of his and others’ success?
As we approach the denouement (French for “If this doesn’t end soon, I’m going to have to put another quarter in the meter”), Van Damme is literally elevated to a privileged position and delivers a surreal, almost Brechtian monologue (I said almost ). Staring directly into the camera, our beleaguer, world-weary star talks . . . to God, to us, and to himself. And not necessarily in that order.
So. Here we are. You and me. Hmm. Why did you do that? Or why did I do that? You gave me my dream. I asked for it. And I promised something in return. But I haven’t delivered yet.
You win. I lose. Unless the path you’ve set for me is a path full of
hurdles where the answer comes before the question . . . . It all makes sense. It makes perfect sense to those who understand . . . .
What have I done on this earth? Nothing. I’ve done nothing. I may just die here . . . . So today I pray to God. I believe. It’s not a movie. This is real life. Real life.
And so Jean-Claude has a decision to make—whether to finally become the hero of his own life.
As I was shutting down my Netflix “Watch Instantly” Movie Viewer with full-screen capacity and Dolby sound, I began thinking of Augustine’s famous Credo ut intelligam —I believe in order to understand, which is just the kind of thing you’d expect from him, being a saint and all.
What must Jean-Claude believe before he can understand? That his life has a purpose beyond kicking an opponent in the nether regions? That $1.8 million in producing fees is clearly excessive for a $6 million gross? Or that you can start over—you can win a second chance at life and learn from past mistakes and four wives (one he married twice)?
Or perhaps Tertullian is the more apt interpreter of the Muscles from Brussels: Credo quia absurdum —I believe because it is absurd. Like Double Impact. Or Replicant .
I believe, Jean-Claude. I believe. Help my unbelief. And get another agent while you’re at it.