All the world's a stage, Shakespeare tells us, but just imagine what kind of nightmare it would be if that were actually true. Jean-Claude Van Damme, played by Jean-Claude Van Damme in Mabrouk El-Mechri's JCVD, doesn't have to imagine if it were true, because for him it is; worse, he doesn't even get to pick the kind of stage he's on or the part he's playing. ... JCVD fakes you out from the jump and doesn't stop, opening with a one-cut action sequence set to the pulse and pound of Baby Huey's 8-track soul-funk version of Curtis Mayfield's "Hard Times: "So I play the part I feel they want of me/ And I'II pull the shades so I won't see them seein' me ..."

And during the opening, Van Damme, older and slower but still possessed of the skills to pay the bills, kicks and punches and shoots his way through a legion of stuntmen until everything goes wrong. And it's been going wrong for a while, and it's a good thing Van Damme still has the skills to pay the bills because Van Damme has bills to pay: IRS arrears, child support, court costs. On-set, he's getting no support from his director, a truculent young Hong Kong hotshot who doesn't want to hear Van Damme's complaints, insulting him in untranslated rants: "Just because he brought John Woo to America, he thinks he can rub my dick with sandpaper?" Van Damme needs this job; he needs every job. And so, the weary and aching Muscles from Brussels endures, bearing the heavy load of life like a '80s Atlas on unsteady ground in the new millennium.
Rushing for a post office to wire some money to his lawyers, Van Damme has to stop to pose for photos, satisfy the public, live up to being him. And after he gets inside, a shot rings out -- throwing the city of Schaerbeek into chaos with the news that Jean-Claude Van Damme has taken the post office hostage. The police are deployed -- setting up their command post in a mom-and-pop video rental place -- and negotiators try to talk Van Damme down. But, of course, he's not who they have to talk down; Van Damme's just the wrong man in the wrong place, and he's cowering and terrified along with the other customers as ringleader Zinedine Squalem and his right-hand man Karim Belkhadra try to figure out how they can get out of this situation by using Van Damme as their go-between to the cops. ...

JCVD isn't an action film, though, even with the tense potential for armed violence at any moment; it's a comedy-drama with kickboxing in it, one where the punch lines are, often, actual punches. As Squalem gets more antsy and Belkhadra cozies up to Van Damme, things reach a breaking point -- and the crowd outside, growing and shouting like some Belgian variation on Dog Day Afternoon remade for the era of tabloid celebrity coverage, aren't helping the moment. Van Damme has been in a thousand movies like this, of course. But this isn't a movie, even though it's hard for him -- and everyone else around him -- to understand that.

And I never thought I'd utter these words, but Jean-Claude Van Damme gives an exciting, impressive performance here, careening between action that leaves him breathless and comedy that leaves us laughing, revealing not only the timing and charisma that made him the action star we know him as but also a human side we probably had never imagined. There's nothing more vain than insisting you're without vanity, but Van Damme strips himself bare here -- the aging action icon, the man who finds living other people's dreams a nightmare, the star who is in danger of losing a part to Stephen frickin' Seagal. (Explaining why there's such heated interest in Seagal for the film instead of his client, VanDamme's agent lamely offers how "(Seagal) offered to cut of his ponytail for the part ..." .) Van Damme's in danger of not seeing his kids, even, and as the judge brings a stack of DVD boxes into court to prove Van Damme's violent career makes him unfit for custody, Van Damme has an exasperated, exhausted and frustrated reaction that's still funny even as you really feel the stakes of the scene.

Director and writer El Mechri's instincts and decisions also make JCVD far more than a one-joke premise. A scene where Van Damme demonstrates one of his moves and his captors try to imitate it is perfectly-timed; the movie-action sequences are shot with rich, phony excitement and the real-world action is shot with grim vigor and scary possibility. In the film's centerpiece scene, too good to spoil, Van Damme literally ascends from the work of art he's in and into the realm of the artificial ... and then lays himself bare, scared and scarred and sad and worried and lonely, hovering in some quiet, aching place between life and death, between art and reality, between fake entertainment and real emotion.

It's hard to imagine JCVD inspiring a wave of similar meta-action films -- Being Rowdy Roddy Piper, say, or The Eternal Sunshine of John Saxon's Mind. But even if there were, copycats aspiring to JCVD's brains and brawn, it's hard to imagine them being this good; JCVD's execution and performances make it far more than just its pitch, and you don't need to wash it down with retro-ironic hipster disdain to enjoy it. JCVD may not wind up being the first step on the comeback trail for Van Damme, but it certainly represents a brief and welcome digression down the road less traveled for its star; between El-Mechri's vision and Van Damme's repentant efforts, JCVD succeeds as a smart, nicely-pitched action-comedy that asked its star to stretch more than just his ligaments, and succeeds because he was willing to take a real chance on something new.