“Invictus”: Not Nearly as Inspiring as Its Title

Two powerful performances greater than the film itself.

Clint Eastwood’s anti-apartheid film has little to offer other than the presence of Morgan Freeman in a role that generated some Oscar buzz. But sadly, as it is, “Invictus” is a somewhat lackluster presentation of an otherwise interesting piece of history.

I like Clint Eastwood. Who doesn’t? I will see anything the man has to offer as a filmmaker or as an actor. But I have to say that if you didn’t see “Invictus” in the theater you really didn’t miss much, and you’re probably better off saving your money on a DVD. Sadly, this Eastwood film is best suited to one of those days you just happen to catch it on cable if you bother seeing it at all. Although the film is based on a rather interesting bit of side story of the tumultuous time when Nelson Mandela was the newly elected President of South Africa and how he used the country’s underachieving Rugby team to unite the people behind a common cause, the film comes nowhere close to capturing either the spirit of the sport or the tensions of a country divided.

I don’t know if it is the script’s fault or Eastwood’s. There’s nothing wrong with the film per se; it just doesn’t draw you into understanding the great feat that was accomplished by Mandela’s bold and unusual maneuver of getting the black population to rally behind a traditionally all white sport during a time that the national team was facing the world cup as underdogs. In fact, it seems that the film relies too much on the audience already knowing what was going on in world politics at the era and how tenuous the relationship was between the public majority and the powerful minority. We are only ever given little glimpses into this situation through Mandela’s newly integrated staff (the most likeable characters in the film) and the family of the Captain of the Rugby team, played less than inspiringly by a buffed-out Matt Damon (although he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar – go figure).

Damon is supposed to represent the many Afrikaners who resent Mandela and what he stands for but who cannot help but be swayed by such an engaging and soulful man. However, the scenes between Damon and Freeman fall deadly flat, lacking any sense of synergy or poignancy. These meetings are supposedly what inspired the Captain to encourage his teammates to do their best and encouraged him to lead by example, but you wouldn’t know it by what you see or the actions that follow. It all just looks like everyone is still going through the usual paces.

A film like “Invictus” should have you standing on your feet with anticipation by the time you get to the final big game, but it failed to rouse even the slightest bit of excitement from a special pre-screening audience who really wanted to like this film. And I suppose they did. But I suspect that had a lot more to do with Eastwood as a cherished icon than anything to do with the film itself. Were it not for the revered filmmaker and his relationship with Morgan Freeman, this film would likely never been made. I’m glad that it did, and it is worth seeing if for nothing more than Morgan Freeman in a spot-on turn as one of the greatest living men of our times. But if you’re expecting anything more than that, you might as well skip it.

“JCVD”

Jean Claude Van Damme like you've never seen him.

I loved “JCVD” when it came out a couple of years ago and I still can’t stop singing its praises. Rent it, NetFlix it, stream it – I don’t care how you do it you have got to see this film. Simply put: If you like Jean Claude Van Damme films, you’ll love this film. And get this: If you don’t like Jean Claude Van Damme, you’re going to really love this film!

I have never seen a JCVD (Jean Claude Van Damme) film in my life, but I’m familiar enough to know that they aren’t the kind of films for which I am willing to spend money. Even if airing for free on TV, I end up surfing the channels for anything else before the first well-placed punch lands from the well-trained body of the “Muscles from Brussels”. However, there’s been a lot of good press about this European release and a friend swore that it would be like nothing I could possibly expect from a Van Damme movie, so I gave it a try. Well, Van damn if he wasn’t 100% right!

In fact, Van Damme’s image is so pronounced and strong that his name has become synonymous with low budget action-packed films where vengeance and rescue are the main plot elements. And these expectations and preconceived notions are exactly the key points that this imaginative and well-crafted film plays upon to create a fantastic movie that everyone with definite ideas or opinions about this Hollywood icon should see.

“JCVD” is a fictionalized story about the real Jan Claude Van Damme. It’s about his struggles as an aging action icon trying his best to rise above his image while dealing with the realities of a child custody battle and the “Hollywood” world that wants to eek every penny out of the action icon they created. It’s about dealing with his fans and dealing with his demons. It’s about making a living and dealing with the self-loathing that comes with the compromises made to earn that money. And, ultimately, it’s about the definitive moment when all these factors come to a head and Van Damme finds himself involved with a bank heist gone wrong. The result is a man coming to terms with who he has been and who he wants to be.

It is something that can happen to any of us, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, it’s an old device that many an action film has been based upon. And much like an action film, the concept here has been taken to the extreme. But here, Van Damme is a real man, left without a script or a fight choreographer, facing real bullets in guns held by unstable people willing to use them. Simultaneously, there are others surrounding him who expect the action star to make a move, and still others who hope that the superstar’s ego doesn’t make him think he’s in another action film. Once again, Van Damme is placed in a roll he does not want, but works with the forces beyond his control to do the best he can with it.

Many characters in the movie suspect that Van Damme has broken away from realty and in a very cleverly devised moment the film itself does no less, taking the star and the audience out of the reality it has created in order to give Van Damme a platform to espouse upon his fate and the ridiculous situation he now finds himself in. And all this is done in a single take! The performance is no less than Oscar worthy. Seriously. I was profoundly disappointed when there wasn’t even a bit of buzz over Van Damme’s performance that year. Unfortunately, Mickey Rourke’s come back role in “The Wrestler” overshadowed any attention Van Damme might have received.

In the end, there is not a happy resolution, but a rather bittersweet and emotional one. Much like his life, the incident at the bank forces Van Damme to make decisions and compromises that will have long lasting ramifications affecting everyone involved, especially those closest to him. This all culminates in an ending that I guarantee you will not forget. It is a moment that will break your heart, and make you believe that the most incredible achievement an action star could possibly make may actually happen someday at the Academy Awards. This was absolutely the best film I saw in 2008. See it!

Here is a link to the film’s most amazing and impressive scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlKdcooqhY8&feature=player_embedded