Release date in France: June 4.

PARIS -- Serious actors seek to boost their credibility by playing Hamlet. Jean-Claude Van Damme, the muscles from Brussels, goes one better by playing himself. Or rather, by playing an aging, careworn, down-on-his-luck action-movie actor who happens to be called Jean-Claude Van Damme. The result is a serio-comic thriller that is part hallucination and part elaborate in-joke guaranteed to have popular audiences feeling smarter and smart audiences feeling more popular. Mabrouk El Mechri’s “JCVD” should do fair business worldwide while also, by accident or design, seriously boosting the star’s acting credentials.

When “Jean-Claude Van Damme” (the inverted commas are essential) returns to Brussels having lost custody of his daughter, run up massive lawyer’s bills and missed out on a movie role to Steven Seagal, he’s hoping for some peace and quiet. No such luck. He wanders into a post office and finds himself at the center of a hostage-taking crisis in an apparent heist-gone-wrong.     

Mechri keeps spectators guessing as to whether Van Damme is a hostage or, as the police believe, a hostage-taker. He muddies the waters by indulging in some modish deconstruction -- repeating scenes from a different POV and introducing jokey chapter headings. The plot is pure hokum but that’s nothing new in a Van Damme movie. What is new is the actor’s willingness to play against the grain and, better still, to make his public persona the butt of the joke.

Self-deprecatory notes abound: A taxi-driver tells Van Damme that she’s delighted to meet him but that he’s “better on-screen.” There is a concerned mother, references to his age and his generally browbeaten demeanor. These are played straight rather than for laughs, and the effect is occasionally touching. And there are flashes of poetry, in particular an apparently improvised scene in which the actor riffs to camera, moving himself to tears in the process, on the trials and tribulations of being Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Karate fans hoping for a testosterone rush are given limited rations, but “JCVD” should entertain both movie and action buffs. Van Damme proves once and for all that he’s not just a set of glistening pectorals. However, he’s still in no danger of being asked to play Hamlet.

Production companies: Gaumont, Samsa Films, Artemis Productions, RTBF . Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Francois Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra, Jean-Francois Wolff, Anne Paulicevich  Director: Mabrouk El Mechri. Writers: Mabrouk El Mechri, Frederic Benudis. Executive producers: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Marc Fiszman. Photography: Pierre-Yves Bastard. Editor: Kako Kelber. Production design: Andre Fonsny. Music: Gast Waltzing. Sales: Gaumont International
No rating, 96 minutes.

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