And it's also a slyly subversive film that bends the rules of story-telling—always welcome.
Jean-Claude Van Damme has just flown back to Belgium, after attending a not-going-well custody trial for his daughter. He's jet-lagged, without sleep for 48 hours, his bank-cards aren't working, just lost a part to Steven Seagal ("he's cut off his pony-tail for the first time!") and he's Jean-Claude Van Damme, which means that every human being on Earth is judging him against his screen-image.* So, he goes to the post-office to wire funds for his lawyer for a bounced check, and finds that he's stumbled onto a robbery. He's immediately taken hostage.
And that's when things get interesting.
It is then that this little movie, so urgent and slightly snarky, turns into a treatise on fame. The robbers think it's cool that they have Van Damme as a hostage, and use him as their "voice" with the police negotiators. When the police find out Jean-Claude Van Damme is robbing the post office, they begin to freak out ("What do you do when Jean-Claude Van Damme goes rogue?") When the press and public find out Van Damme is robbing the post office, it turns into a circus.
The robbers alternately despise the star's presence, while still exploiting it, suspecting that he might try and foil the robbery, which the actor, the only one not fooled or dazzled by his screen-image, has no intention of doing.** It turns into utter madness, "Die Hard" on a small scale, where one man is caught between both the enemy and cavalry and taking shots from both sides, but in a perverse twist, that man is an action star—with no script to follow.
And then at the 1 hour 8 minute mark, the ambient sound of chanting street noise and bickering criminals goes away, and the strangest part of the film begins, as the actor begins to rise into the lights of the set, looks into the camera and tells a story—his story—of how he began his career in films. The monologue, mostly ad-libbed, is a bi-polar roller-coaster of emotions that Van Damme delivers in a raw, bitter style. But what is it? The truth? An audition piece? A confession? Something for the demo? An actor show-boating, or having a narcissistic pity party? That these questions are brought up is part of the razor's edge that the film is walking in that nether-world of life and movie-world.
But, it's something not seen before: actor Jean-Claude Van Damme is very good at stretching his muscles in his movies, but not his emotions...and this performance, embedded in one of his most naturalistic performances overall, does two things: it breaks the wall of movie-artifice and allows the inner thoughts of the character to burble forth. Whether it reflects truth is, actually...finally... unimportant. That it explains the actions to come of that character...is. And it casts the deep-seated motivations of the martial artist in an interesting light, rarely explored in movies.*** It is a strange, bizarre action film that questions the form, and ultimately, is just a little bit dangerous.
* One of my favorite running gags in the film is how a lot of ordinary people ask him how he feels about director John Woo, who cast him in an early film and didn't use him once he was established in Hollywood. "Still," one of them opines in the capper, "'Windtalkers' must have felt like some kind of justice."
** At one point, one of the star-struck robbers entreats Van Damme to kick a cigarette out of a hostage's mouth, which the star does. Then the robber attempts it: "I haven't done this in years," says the robber. "I don't know if I still can!" Van Damme looks at him with growing frustration: "Then, don't DO it!" The robber does anyway, kicking the hostage in the jaw. It's just one of the wonderful ways El Mechri shows fame as the crazy phenomenon it is, asking whether the crazy people are looking out of the fish-bowl or in?
*** Interestingly, another film HAS explored this theme: "Redbelt;" the two films would make a fascinating double-bill.