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Stéphane De Groodt
Raw and grim, slow and humourless, but it will make Van Damme fans smile
I'm so happy to be able to review a JCVD film that is in theatres, and not straight to "video" or rather straight to digital media. And I'm even more happy to be able to write good things about it. While "Black Water" (also released this year) was a cool action movie concept executed very poorly, "Lukas" (or "The Bouncer") is a rather derivative movie concept executed with skill. Unlike Black Water, Lukas had enough of a budget to realize the project, and skillful people behind the scenes to fruitfully sculpt it into a worthy viewing experience.
"Lukas" is an ex bodyguard working as a bouncer in a nightclub in Brussels, Belgium. He has a young daughter to take care of, and his past is somewhat mysterieus, especially because of his quiet and stoic demeanor. When an altercation goes awry at work, he is fired and gets a new job in a strip club that turns out to be run by a Flemish criminal. Cops take him in about the accident at his previous job, and force him to spy on his new boss. Stuck between a vicious criminal and an asshole blackmailing agent, Lukas is forced to get himself into some risky situations to be able to keep his little girl and provide for her.
This is a movie that will stand out in Van Damme's career as one of his better performances, and as one of his more succesful projects. It's different from your average Van Damme action flick, of course. If it even is an action movie. There's some fighting and some shooting and some care chasing, sure. But truthfully "Lukas" is a drama. It's pace is very slow, the dialogue is sparse and the atmosphere is constantly grim. Thankfully the action sequences, while sparse, always hit home thanks to their brutality and the esthetic direction. Imagery of course, but definately also sound. One action sequence has the camera follow Van Damme without cutting, as he enters a drug den to extract someone. The tension rises as he enters and sneaks around the house. As he finds his target and the action kicks in swiftly and brutally, there is literally no sound. Like when your teacher decided that the best way to get the class to quiet down was not to yell but to remain silent: the viewer is more attentive than if there had been sound effects. Then as Lukas extracts his target, suddenly, a shot is fired and the sound kicks in again. While the ridiculous shootouts in "Black Water" were all over the place but lacked any impact, every bullet fired in Lukas feels and sounds like an actual threat.
Since this is more of a drama, needless to say the Van Damme you get to see in this one is not the dancing youth from "Kickboxer" (1989) or the whimsical twins from "Double Impact" (1991). This is the more quiet, mournful Van Damme. A 60 year old Lionheart if you will. In "Lionheart" (1990), Van Damme gives a quiet and toned down, but surprisingly touching performance as he struggles through unwanted battles for the good of his family. In "Lukas" too, it's family that's at stake. While Van Damme can be charismatic as a villain or a young arrogant joker, and is more known for spin kicks, splits, yelling out as he strikes the final blow, and punching out a snake (Hard Target 1993), THIS is the type of role where he is at his best: brooding, quiet, clearly emotional but keeping them -barely- in check. But now that he's older, there's all the more character, suffering and depth in Van Damme's face. While we don't see much of his young daughter, they have a touching and believable chemistry on screen.
(This paragraph contains a spoiler) During the scene in which Lukas gives some insight into his past and the death of his wife, it hits me: this is the movie that takes place AFTER the average Van Damme movie. Lukas explains that, while the law did not catch the criminals that killed his wife, he did. So: this film gives us a peek into what happens after the action hero avenges his loved ones and kills the vilain. And what do we see? A lonely old single father, scraping by to support his daughter and battling his inner demons. Interesting.
Because I'm so happy that Van Damme made a good film in 2018 that is shown in theatres, I just gave it a 10/10. Why not. It may not be Bloodsport, but it will make it into many fans top 10 JCVD movies, probably even in many fans top 5. The film has a simple and believable storyline, the characters stand out, the actors do a good job, including Van Damme. If you go into this expecting a fast paced action flick with explosions and crazy kicks, you will be disapointed. It's a raw action-drama. The pace is very slow, but has a definite flow to it. The film feels pleasingly 'tight', because of it's simple story in which we see a glimpse of Lukas' life. It's like we've seen only a chapter of a long-running series. The atmosphere is grim but top notch, and production wise and esthetically this film is well crafted compared to many of Van Damme's projects. The ending is somewhat frustrating and sudden, but in retrospect perfectly fitting. Let us hope "Lukas" is the level of quality we can expect from Van Damme's future projects, rather than "Black Water". That would be a magnificent comeback for my favourite action movie star.
PS: If you can, go see the European/French version instead of the English version. Van Damme's line delivery is much more potent in my opinion.
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