Jean-Claude Van Damme. I expect that's not a name you've heard in a while. One of the world's foremost action stars in the late '80s and early '90s, thanks to films like Kickboxer and Universal Soldier, the actor's fortunes took a sudden, sharp turn for the worse sometime around the release of The Quest in 1996, and for the most part his film have been noted by the world outside of hard-core action fans only when they are exceptionally bad.

It would not seem that 2008 is the right time to rejuvenate the career of The Muscles From Brussels with an action-comedy whose effectiveness hinges on Van Damme's acting skills, but this is mere proof that the Belgians are a more adventuresome people than we Americans, and it pays off with JCVD, easily the best film of the performer's career, and just as easily the least-typical. Put it another way: would anyone expect that a washed-up action star would be the right man to headline a fresh take on the thematic concerns of the generally-detested Last Action Hero? And yet, if not for a third act that starts to fall asleep on itself, this would be in a walk the best-written satire of 2008.

Van Damme plays "himself", though it's a version of himself with enough twists that we can tell that it's a fictional character - in the film, he has an American daughter at the center of a grim custody battle, and the only work he can get is in tremendously cheap direct-to-DVD features (in life, Van Damme's fortunes haven't fallen that far yet). The second of these facts is having a deleterious effect on the first as the film begins, forcing JCVD to wire $1000 to his Los Angeles custody lawyer from Brussels to cover a bounced check. Unfortunately for him, the bank he heads to is being robbed just at that moment, and thanks to a couple of vintage comedy-of-error contrivances, the cops, led by Commissioner Bruges (François Damiens), have it in their head that the desperate actor is the bank robber. As JCVD settles in for yet another shitty day in a long line of shitty days, a massive crowd of Belgians gather outside the bank to cheer on the only important movie star their country has ever produced - hostage taking might be an awful thing, but when a famous person does it? You rock, Jean-Claude!

I fudged a little bit up there: it's not really an action-comedy, though there are a couple of really funny bits and a couple of decent action bits (which are played for laughs). It's actually an arty satire about celebrity that calls to mind Being John Malkovich more than anything else.* In both cases, the famous person referenced in the title is treated less as a person and more as a totem by everyone who meets him: the primary difference is that, while in the earlier film, nobody could actually remember who John Malkovich was (except for being in that jewel thief movie), it's quite clear that everybody in JCVD has seen a boatload of Van Damme films. But neither man is thought of as a person, with actual crises and triumphs in his private life - they're concepts for the masses to hang their projections on.

The other difference, of course, is that JCVD makes the celebrity the protagonist of the story, making its satire a bit less absurd and a bit more tragic. We know everything going wrong in Jean-Claude's life, and feel pretty bad for him as a result - which goes a long way to explaining why this film isn't (and isn't meant to be) laugh-out-loud funny. It has a certain detachment to it that reads as comedy from time to time, given that European mode of dry humor where misery is funny as long as it's not happening to us, and the film manages to wrestle some genuine laughs from JCVD's weariness at dealing with fanboys, especially the ones who are holding guns to his head (one of the film's best gags: the robber with the biggest love for JCVD's cinema mentions angrily that John Woo abandonded the actor after using him as an entry point into Hollywood, with Hard Target: Jean-Claude mildly suggests that it's okay, because he really liked Face/Off). There are also the expected jokes at Van Damme's expense, beginning with the very first shot in the film, a five-minute number that takes us through an action setpiece in the actor's newest film, where stuntmen miss their cues and fake punches miss by several feet. At the end, the actor refuses to do another take, on the grounds that 47-year-olds make crappy action stars. And really, God bless Van Damme for going for it. Steven Seagal wouldn't have gone for it.

The craziest thing? Van Damme proves that he's a pretty decent actor, at least when he's working in his native French. It might seem like has the easiest role in the world - he has to play himself as a terrible actor - but it's usually the easiest roles in the world that are the most demanding, and Van Damme plays his character with a dead-eyed weariness that is honestly very moving at times, particularly during a monologue late in the film where he expresses his frustrations at being nothing but a star of shitty action movies, and not even being good enough at that to justify the love he receives for it; in this scene, we see Jean-Claude Van Damme weep openly, and that is something that you just don't expect to see. No, it's not the best performance in the world, but it's also light-years beyond anything else we've ever seen from this actor, and since the very concept of JCVD hinges on Van Damme playing himself well as an incompetent, it's a weirdly exciting thing, too.

The only real problem with the film is that it hasn't enough ideas to keep itself moving for even 96 minutes. Charlie Kaufman ran out of satire, he just launched straight-ahead into surrealism, but the writers of JCVD are too committed to their essentially realistic story, so when it starts to run out of new things to say, they're stuck: finish telling it like you started (a good thing) and you start repeating yourself, or keep things fresh (a good thing) but only by violating the rules of the story. Director and co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri tries, splitting the story apart into disjointed, overlapping, time-shifted chunks, but there's really only a featurette's worth of theme stretched out here. For all that, I can't say I left the theater unhappy: it's always exciting to see a typecast, limited performer show off some unexpected skills, and while the film's only gag wears thin sooner rather than later, what a great gag!