Jean Claude Van Damme doesn’t feature in Birdman, but after watching this superb piece of contemporary film making I found myself pondering the old karate veteran. My knowledge of Van Damme’s films was, I’ll admit, limited. There was Last Action Hero, TimeCop and, the most influential film for me (thanks mostly to Kylie’s appearance) as a pubescent boy Street Fighter. For years I had a singular image of him, the range he could portray, the types of films he would be in (mostly bad) and the number of people on average he’d kick the ass of in each outing (approx 150, for reference only Segal and Norris kick more ass on a per outing basis). Then I chanced upon a film in 2010 called JCVD, a fictional account of Jean Claude’s life, he played himself as a failing, washed up film star, fed up of the roles he played, returning to Belgium desperate for cash. It completely changed my perceptions of him as an actor – he can act – there’s a scene where he transcends the film in, what I can only describe as one of the most pretentiously wonderful bits of film I’ve seen, and delivers a monologue that makes you think, “shit, he’s actually good”.
Birdman had the same effect on me in regards to Michael Keaton. I’d only really known him from Tim Burton’s Batman films and the odd cameo’s in films such as Robocop, Need For Speed and Herbie: Fully Loaded. I’d always thought him solid, dependable but not a spectacular actor, not someone you’d want in a lead. Let’s be honest, he wasn’t the main event in the Batman films (Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jack Nicholson – no disgrace being outgunned, especially while playing the mostly quite dull caped crusader) so my expectations weren’t huge for Birdman.
Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a character synchronized to my (and probably other people’s) perception of Keaton’s career after Batman, waiting to be asked back into the suit, broken and bruised and risking it all (the character that is). The parallel works incredibly well, you buy into the narrative, character, situation straight away, perhaps because of the choice of casting but certainly aided by an incredible performance by Keaton and an ensemble who support beautifully. Keaton is masterful, he dominates the screen, shows a vulnerability that raises a smile and creates an empathy that draws you into his neurotic, whirlwind world.
The film is beautifully shot, soaring shots that feel like they last hours, following the story moment to moment but without cuts that break the pace of the movie. It’s all accompanied by a jazz drum background soundtrack that builds peaks and troughs of tension and reinforces the sense of panic, confusion and bewilderment running through Thompson’s life. The dark and dangerous voice of Birdman (the equivalent of Batman) haunts Thompson and adds an extra layer of neurosis and help highlight the two acting worlds that clash, the theatre and movies and allows us to question the nature of art and reality.
The supporting cast features Zach Galifianakis who plays a wonderfully moderate and well balanced character, Edward Norton whose strength in portraying an arrogant and pretentious star of the stage for whom art is everything contrasts perfectly with Keaton and Emma Stone who plays the damaged child from a Thompson’s failed relationship lacking joy with a father trying to change the past.
There have been some brilliant films this year, but if Birdman doesn’t win the Oscar it will truly be a travesty. A momentous achievement from a brilliant director, strong ensemble cast and a perception changing performance from Michael Keaton.