Sullen and wizened JCVD might be the best JCVD
The wizened, silent hero with some blood on his hands is a classic trope in crime and action cinema. We cherish our William Munny’s from Unforgiven, our Jack Reachers, our John Wicks. Then there’s the ascendance of the modern Dad action subgenre popularized by Taken and carried through to Blood Father and dozens of others. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Lukas brings us a gloriously meditative and dour hybrid of these subgenres and gets that recipe just right.
Lukas is a bouncer, as the US title of the film implies. A former bodyguard, we know very little about the man except that he loves his daughter, he’s behind on her school payments, he’s got some secrets in his past, and he’s very good at violence. When we meet him he’s keeping his head above water, but a chance confrontation with a powerfully connected scumbag at a club costs him his job. Soon enough he finds himself at a job interview for a crooked club owner where the job goes to whoever is last man standing. Further complicating his life, Detective Zeroual (French tough guy actor Sami Bouajila) brings him in regarding the initial incident at the club, and he then finds himself forced into the investigation surrounding his new corrupt boss. Boxed in by his need to keep himself and his daughter afloat, the increasing criminal activity he’s being pushed into by his boss, and Zeroual’s relentless push to capture that boss (a major counterfeiter), Lukas has no other options other than to fight to survive.
Directed with a quiet but confident style by French filmmaker Julien Leclercq, this film rises above the quality level of many of Van Damme’s late-career projects. Leclercq draws his inspirations from those strong silent types of cinema’s past to flesh out Lukas as a character. And this film wouldn’t be what it is without someone like Van Damme in the lead role embodying those past heroes. Leclercq referenced filmmakers like David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky (notably Americans, despite how French the final film feels) as inspirations. His camera follows Lukas around in a style inspired by The Wrestler, and it’s quite effective. The script felt like it had much in common with another recent French crime thriller called A Bluebird In My Heart. I shouldn’t have been too surprised, then, when I discovered that the writer/director of Bluebird, Jeremie Guez, had also written The Bouncer.
As far as action set pieces go, The Bouncer is explosive and effective without packing the runtime with violence. This is a character-based crime film that ratchets up tension in an effort to really box in Lukas. There’s a glorious long-take where the camera is once again following Lukas as he enters a drug den and navigates the winding hallways until he locates and pulls out a meth cooker his boss commands him to kidnap. It’s a fantastically tense sequence that was very complicated to pull off. There’s also an expertly executed chase and shoot-out in a parking garage, the aforementioned “job interview” fight, and a final standoff that are all very satisfying.
The ultimate piece of the puzzle that really elevates Lukas is the throbbing and tense score. Reminiscent of a relentless heartbeat, score becomes entwined with character and Lukas’ circumstances combined with the hopeful beat of his heart keep us rooting for a man to prevail against all those in the way of him getting his family to a place of safety and stability. It’s a great device for an aging hero, reminiscent of the “fire in the belly” that Sylvester Stallone is often referencing in later Rocky films… the unrelenting will to live and prevail despite age and the grind of life. And all of that comes through simply through the intentional throb of the music.
Lukas’ (and in turn Van Damme’s) age is overtly acknowledged throughout, which helps to lend credence to the film. It does strain credulity that such an older man would have QUITE that young of a daughter. But when his counterfeiter boss comments on Lukas prevailing in the brawl/job interview, he wonders aloud whether Lukas is insane, or simply a born survivor, adapting to whatever form he must in order to protect what is his. Lukas comments that it must be a little of both. It’s fantastic to see a performer like Jean-Claude Van Damme continuing to crank out respectable and boundary-pushing work long past when many of his contemporaries have faded into obscurity or crank out consistently lazy work. Between the self-reflective JCVD, the hilarious Jean-Claude Van Johnson series, and now The Bouncer, Van Damme proves he’s a committed and gifted performer willing to mine the depths of his flaws for great characters and still willing to put in the physical work to be a credible aging bruiser.
If meditative thrillers about aging heroes is your bag, then Lukas (the superior European title of The Bouncer) is the crime film for you. I enjoyed it so much I plan to track down some of the earlier films of director Leclercq, and I personally recommend A Bluebird In My Heart for those looking to get a taste of The Bouncer to tide them over until this film gets a release in their region of the world.
And I’m Out.