By G. Michael Dobbs
Two great DVDs are in this week's review column.
The beauty of a well-done documentary is that it can draw in an audience almost regardless of the subject matter. I can't tell you the number of times I've found a documentary on television, watched it at first slightly reluctantly and then became hooked.
"Pulling John" has one of the worst titles I've seen in a long time. No, it's not what you're thinking about - the subject of the film is arm wrestling and specifically the competition between two men, both who've focused their efforts on defeating the dominant man in the sport, John Brzent.
Brzent is a soft-spoken man who has been the undefeated champ for 25 years. He has not only excelled within his weight class, but he has built his reputation on taking on larger and potentially stronger men. Married and a airline mechanic - so he could get free airfare to competitions around the world - Brzent is constantly thinking about whether or not he should retire undefeated or continue facing "monsters" - competitors larger than he is.
There are two such prominent "monsters," Travis Bagent and Alexy Voevoda, who idolize Brzent but see him as the man they must defeat to earn their place in the arm wrestling community.
In a world where success in professional sports is noted with fat paychecks and magazine covers, these three men are clearly involved for their own reasons. No one appears to be getting rich from arm wrestling.
The film's two directors, Seven Matosiam and Vassikiki Khonsari, create a seamless story following the three men and explaining a sport that I didn't know really existed in an organized worldwide form. They also do a great job in revealing the character of the three: Brzent's soul-searching, Bagent's loudmouth bravado and Voevoda's quiet determination.
It doesn't matter if you're a sports fan or not, this is a very engaging film.
I had heard about this movie through my friend, filmmaker Marty Langford, and I was instantly intrigued. In the world of action films, Jean Claude Van Damme has been a steady journeyman-like performer and really hasn't had that huge breakout role that could propel him to a higher status - that is until "JCVD."
Now available on DVD, this is one of the most audacious films I've seen in a very long time. Van Damme plays a character called "Jean Claude Van Damme," a once successful martial artist movie star from Belgium who is at the end of his rope, both in his career and his life.
He is tired of starring in cheap films, tired of the grueling custody battle for his daughter and, at age 47, simply tired. Looking battered and beaten, he has traveled back to his native Belgium to regroup.
He goes to a bank to arrange a wire transfer of money - he is so broke he doesn't have enough cash to pay for the taxi - and walks into a robbery in process.
The police are almost immediately convinced that he is part of the heist, instead of being an innocent victim as the real criminals use him to speak with the authorities. The resulting drama is compelling as Van Damme struggles not only with his immediate situation but also with his life as a whole.
For a guy not known for his acting abilities, Van Damme reveals huge thespian chops here. This is literally the role of his lifetime and he is amazing.
There is one major monologue that shows this guy can act if given a chance.
Of course, it helped Van Damme to have obvious support from French director Mabrouk El Mechri, who knows how to stage both action sequences and drama.
It's interesting to note that Van Damme is back to writing and directing his own films. Perhaps he is trying to take control of his career once more.
This film has my highest recommendation - it's startlingly different.
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