A banged-up JCVD leads the formulaic but entertaining Darkness of Man

Despite overbaked voiceover narration, Darkness of Man manages to keep Luke Buckmaster’s attention—with its neo-noir-lite atmosphere, and story of an ageing JCVD as a heroic protector.

Ah, the power of ravaged banged-up men acting ruefully. In Darkness of Man, Jean Claude Van Damme plays a former Interpol operative who, as this film is at pains to remind us, is a man of constant sorrow—hard-bitten and wearied, with glazed eyes and a deflated stoop. These sorts of performances from ageing action stars can be difficult to resist, tanged in a melancholia that extends out of the narrative universe—as if their remorsefulness isn’t just about their present character but their lives and careers.

Are they apologetic in part for starring in so many dodgy, perhaps ideologically problematic movies? Former muscle men like JCVD and Sylvester Stallone certainly look like they’ve big mistakes, insinuations of hard-earned wisdom written in their wrinkles. These performers don’t have to work as hard to build an emotional connection with audiences, because they already have one, and they’re already there, somewhere in our psyches, in Van Damme’s case doing judo chops and fly kicks.

Director and co-writer James Cullen Bressack builds his entire film around protagonist Russell Hatch’s hangdog demeanour, finding various ways to make the point that for this intensely down-in-the-mouth fellow, it’s too late to start again. Like many similarly oriented narratives following live by the sword anti-heroes yet to pay the devil their due, there’s a plot arc in which the bedraggled lead protects a much younger person, giving their tales a sacrificial quality—not dissimilar to the “hitman with a heart” trope.

Here, in this formulaic but quite entertainingly morose genre flick, Hatch looks out for Jayden (Emerson Min), the teenage son of a murdered informant. Jayden’s grandfather (Ji Yong Lee) has connections to Korean gangs, who are at war with Russian gangs attempting to muscle in on their turf. You can sense a mile away that Jayden will get wrapped up with the Wrong Crowd, and that the protagonist—the meat in the middle of the sandwich—will come to his rescue. It’s not too long before Hatch gets on the receiving end of action movies 101 threats à la “you’re a dead man!”

Even less time transpires before we hear from the man himself, who immediately launches into dejected voice-over narration that’s almost endearing in its heavy-handedness—with an overbaked, airport novel flavour. In the opening shot old mate JCVD is in a state of bother, on the ground suffering from a gunshot wound, while reflecting via narration that “If I had to tell myself how I got here, just like every story, it started with a girl.” During this blood-oozing moment of pseudo profundity I felt almost bad for wanting to say: actually, mate, many stories don’t start that way…the old ‘it all began with a girl’ chestnut is more of a noir thing.”

At a push you could describe Darkness of Man as neo-noir, a more accommodating label than the more befitting “B movie.” Although at least this one has an enjoyably moody ambience, with a stylishly musty midnight veneer—lots of orange light, as if warmed by the glow of candles. The action scenes are far from exceptional, but they’re not badly staged either, executed with a raggedy quality that suits the protagonist’s swelling joints and worn-down visage, though I doubt this was intentional. Bressack’s lack of subtlety manifests in several places, including his decision to highlight particular words in subtitled dialogue; for instance presenting the text “kill that son of bitch” with the last four words in blood red.

And that voice-over just won’t quit. I’m often anti-voice-over narration, particularly when it’s as soapy as “I’ll never be done walking in the darkness, but at least I know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” But JCVD comes admirably close to making it work, and even though this film is far from great it’d probably be worse without it. I won’t attempt to tell you what accent the star speaking in, because that question has dogged cineastes for decades. Suffice to say that as a Broken Man who has Made Mistakes, he’s pretty good.