Like the unstoppable undead super soldier he plays in the surprisingly enduring Universal Soldier series, Jean Claude Van Damme has become self aware.
Sylvester Stallone repeatedly trots out Rambo to rain xenophobic hell on enemies with diminishing returns, Bruce Willis languishes in direct-to-video purgatory and Steven Seagal seems content to hang out with Vladimir Putin in between paychecks. But unlike his ‘80s contemporaries, the Muscles from Brussels has fully embraced his elder-statesman status in recent years, leaning into the inherent ridiculousness that comes with a legacy of over-the-top action films carrying over to a man in his 60s.
With The Last Mercenary, the trailer for which dropped on Netflix’s Comic-Con analog, Geeked Week, Van Damme seems to be having the time of his charmed life playing up his legacy for laughs. The French import stars Van Damme as a legendary super-agent embroiled in an espionage plot involving his son.
But really, it seems like an excuse for JCVD to ham it up and play the hits: That means ample opportunities to see the sexagenarian star of Double Impact, Bloodsport and Hard Target do the splits, don ridiculous wigs and mustaches and execute his famously peculiar dance moves with a knowing smirk.
This isn’t the first time that Van Damme has embraced his own ludacris persona. In fact, the actor has a history of self-parody that offer a winking, extremely meta take on his outsized persona.
The actor’s first and most effective self-own is also his most bittersweet and unexpectedly poignant. In JCVD, Van Damme plays a down-on-his-luck version of himself: broke, fading and locked in a custody battle with his estranged wife. What could play out like a mean-spirited, sad-sack parody evolves into a meditation on the nature of celebrity as the actor becomes embroiled in a bank robbery that transforms the film into a dark comedy that’s closer to Dog Day Afternoon than Cyborg. Here, the actor displays extreme vulnerability, particularly in a heart-wrenching direct-to-camera monologue that completely shatters any expectation that the proceedings will somehow end with a car chase or martial-arts battle. It’s not just the actor’s best performance — with respect to Timecop, that’s not a high bar to set. It’s one of the most oddly moving performances from an aging star to come out of the ‘00s.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson (2016)
While JCVD worked hard to avoid expectations, this Ridley Scott-produced Amazon original goes all in on self parody, featuring Van Damme as himself. Well, sort of. In this story, we find out that Van Damme’s entire career was a Confessions of a Dangerous Mind-style front for the actor’s real work as super spy Jean-Claude Van Johnson. The show is basically Van Damme roasting himself: He’s a preening egomaniac who can’t stop referencing his won movies, even as the real-life action teeters over into ‘80s blockbuster territory. The show was canceled after one season, which is a shame, since the underseen gem serves as a glimpse into how funny the aged icon can be when he’s allowed to make himself the punchline.
The Last Mercenary debuts on Netflix July 30.
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Read Time Out’s original review of JCVD