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Catching up with faded action star Jean-Claude Van Damme ... sort of

In this meta-comedy-slash-heist-film, the "muscles from Brussels" -- Jean-Claude Van Damme (portraying himself) -- returns to his hometown, escaping a slew of personal troubles in Los Angeles, only to get caught up in a small-time robbery and hostage situation. Director Mabrouk El Mechri fills the film with various shout-outs and in-jokes for fans of Van Damme's mostly shlocky action films, but his style -- murky lighting, epigrams for intertitles and a nonlinear plot -- pay allegiance to the more cerebral and downbeat crime comedies of the 1990s. The viewer, of course, is amusingly distracted, imagining the real-life actor as this tired and frustrated has-been. (I once had a short conversation with Van Damme in the early 1990s, and he said something bizarre about candy lowering cholesterol; he gives a similar metabolic tip in this movie.) Thus, the film's take-away scene is an astonishing, one-take, extra-narrative monologue in which Van Damme recounts his messy life, the broken promise of his stardom and the vagaries of his dimly lit fame (pestered as a celebrity, but broke and unemployable). It's uncomfortable, yet fascinating to watch -- not least because you can't help thinking: If Van Damme is acting, this is good. In English, and French, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Dec. 5. Squirrel Hill

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