Genre: Drama, Comedy, Mystery and Thriller; Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Zinedine Soualem; Director: Mabrouk El Mechri; Author: Frederic Benudis, Mabrouk El Mechri, Christophe Turpin; Runtime (in minutes): 92; MPAA Rating: R

Pity the fool who underestimates Belgian action star Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Muscles From Brussels specializes in playing bulked-up butt kickers in whomp-and-release flicks happily derided the world over. But the clever, stylish perception-teaser of a comic drama JCVD — a reality-twisting cousin to Being John Malkovich — showcases a Van Damme who’s sly like a fox about his own image. Here’s a smart guy who has taken plenty of punches in life, fully aware of how close celebrity is to absurdity. No wonder the star’s face, in deadpan repose, resembles that of Buster Keaton.

Van Damme plays an action star called Jean-Claude Van Damme (we see him doing his moves on a movie set) with a lot on his mind when the camera isn’t rolling. Embroiled in a custody battle over his daughter, he sets out on a banking errand, accidentally interrupts a stickup in progress, and becomes another hostage. Movie-style maneuvers are useless, of course, against real bullets; what would a flesh-and-blood hero do? Sympathetic director Mabrouk El Mechri creates a marvelous netherworld of ambiguous scenarios, and Van Damme rises to the challenge — of acting — like the real pro he is. A?

Originally posted November 5 2008 — 12:00 AM EST

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