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My San Francisco screenwriter friend Sam Hamm, who wrote Tim Burton's "Batman," used to joke that he wanted to write an autobiographical script and star Jean-Claude Van Damme. The ad-line would be "Van Damme am Hamm."

Well, "Van Damme am Van Damme" in "JCVD," a 2009 film receiving its local premiere at the Charles' "La Cinematheque" series tonight at 7. The martial-arts movie phenomenon of the mid-1990s plays himself as a faded star reduced to grabbing fees from direct-to-DVD productions shot in, say, a factory in Bulgaria. Returning home to recuperate after a grueling court fight for custody of his young daughter, "the Muscles from Brussels," desperate for the money to pay his legal costs, becomes the center of an apparent robbery/hostage scheme at a Belgian post-office/bank.

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You'll find no spoilers at this post. Suffice it to say that Mabrouk El Mechri's movie offers untidy, irreverent riffs on the surprising affection for international action stars and their untapped potential as performers. He embeds these riffs in a Dawg Day Afternoon scenario and centers them on a startling cri de coeur from Van Damme. The film boasts a suitably scabrous vision of exploitative lawyers and agents and a funny inside-cinema joke on how John Woo would "still be shooting pigeons in Hong Kong" if Van Damme hadn't asked him to direct "Hard Target." (There's also a killer running gag about Steven Seagal cutting off his ponytail.)

In his biggest hits, Van Damme played a cyborg warrior (1992's "Universal Soldier") and a time-travel enforcement agent trying to stop a crooked senator from buying the Presidency (1994's "Timecop"). His directors tried to spin jokes around his robotic performances, as James Cameron did with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the"Terminator" series. (The timecop himself quipped, "I'm never funny.")

It's refreshing to see "JCVD" go in the opposite direction, toward intrigue and emotion -- and gratifying that Van Damme pulls off the wild ride.

Did you enjoy any vintage Van Damme movies? Are you curious about this revisionist slant on his persona?

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