JCVD has roundhouse-kicked its way onto my list of top movies of the year. The unheralded return of Belgian action superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme from the land of straight-to-video is a must-see. It is not only full of hilarious moments and tense, skillfully-choreographed action, it also packs, unexpectedly, an emotional wallop too.

But not sentimental, although sentimentality can work well in action flicks (see John Woo’s Hong Kong oeuvre). It’s just… emotional. Van Damme, Being John Malkovich-like, ostensibly plays himself. He’s an out-of-his-prime action star who has become an international punchline. (The movie incorporates real commercials he did for French television spouting mantras like “Je suis ‘aware.'”) He’s going through a bitter custody battle for his daughter and to pay his lawyer he’ll have to take yet another awful straight-to-video gig, that is, if Steven Seagal doesn’t get it first. Amidst this personal turmoil, he winds up stuck in a hostage situation at a Belgian post office.

To say anything more would spoil some of the big surprises that writer/director Mabrouk El Mechri and writers Frédéric Bénudis and Christophe Turpin have in store. They have layered what is already a twisty and entertaining action plot with some actual insight into the tortured and guilty soul of the real Jean-Claude Van Damme, someone who thought he wanted fame, but now only wishes he didn’t embarrass his young daughter.

The movie is also full of laughs. While Mechri excels at directing the drama and action in the movie, he and his actors, including JCVD himself, really blew me away with their ability to find small and genuine comedic moments in unexpected places. I loved JCVD’s encounter with two fans at a movie rental place, and the one-sided conversation he has with an effusive taxi driver.

At the Nuart last night, I saw the audience of LA movie geeks run the gamut. Any movie that can move an audience from ‘laughing at’ Van Damme to ‘laughing with’ Van Damme to ‘crying with’ Van Damme is a great movie.

MORE:
Great New York Times article on the making of JCVD (warning: spoilers)
The JCVD song by Ukelilli
Metacafe video interview with Mechri