There’s something comforting in the way the ageing action star Jean-Claude Van Damme is wearing his years. He’s letting the mileage show, and not losing a lot of sleep about the fact that his punches aren’t what they once seemed to be, his kicks not quite the fight-ending footwork they used to be.
The “Muscles from Brussels” is well-cast as “The Bouncer,” a Belgian thriller (in French, Flemish and English) tailor-made for a world weary man of violence. The thriller, about a nightclub bouncer with a mysterious past caught between the local mobster he works for and blackmailing cops who want a piece of that hoodlum, isn’t all that. But Van Damme’s screen presence carries it as far as it goes, even if that isn’t all the way to a satisfying finish line.
“Lukas” (the film’s title in the rest of the world) is living in his native Belgium, a single dad raising a young daughter (Alice Verset) on a the salary he earns at a local nightbclub.
He spends his evenings breaking up fights, picking up ODs, defending waitresses and generally cleaning up the mayhem in the maelstrom of thumping techno in a club illuminated in flashes of blue and grey.
He injures a guy who was shoving a waitress around and loses his job. But his younger got-your-back boss (the rapper Kaaris, an arresting presence) knows of “this strip club in Ixelles.” Lukas has, at least an interview.
Here’s the first JCVD moment in “Bouncer.” Lukas shows up at the Funny Pony, is led to the basement where there are many other candidates for the job.
“It’s simple,” the boss (Kevin Janssens) growls. “The last man standing gets the job.”
Lukas is bloodied and dropped in the brawl that follows. But never count out the Muscles from Brussels.
Things turn complicated when the cops want to ask him questions about losing that previous job. Charges have been filed, and the police notice this Lukas is a man without a past, whose daughter is in private school under a false name.
“Who are you hiding from?
It’s OK, the EU agent (Sami Bouajila) assures him. Inexplicably, based on the accident that happened to the punk in the club, the EU special police want Lukas on their team and are willing to blackmail him — get the charges dropped — to get him to agree to it.
They want to know what the ruthless, mob-connected club owner (Sam Louwyck) is up to.
And Jan, that club owner, has his own questions of his new employee.
“Where are you from? Nobody knows you. You have one number in your phone.”
He, too, is instantly impressed with Lukas, entrusting him to guard the valuable Italian blonde (Sveva Alviti, given too little to do), bringing Lukas along for the hard jobs — kidnapping the expert drug cooker, etc.
The plot is strictly hash, with coincidences, obvious clues and twists we see coming, with a couple of half-speed fights and half-hearted shootouts and car chases tossed in for variety.
The director gave the world “The Assault” and “The Crew” and the screenwriter scripted “The Night Eats the World.” So as we say in English, not Flemish or French, “It is what it is.”
But Van Damme, wearing a hoodie over a hoodie in most scenes, eyes cast down, staying on task, is a mesmerizing presence at the heart of it all. He’s not just playing a guy who has seen it all before, fought his way through this sort of thing too many times to count.
That’s sort of who he is now, a grizzled, melancholy tough guy — at least in the movies.
He was never Mr. One-Liner, never quite Stallone or Statham or the rest, even as they all aged into action heroes who relied on prop guns instead of fight choreography to get by.
And unlike the rest, he’s letting the years and miles show even if the movies shrink to fit his diminished screen profile as he does.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and brief nudity/sexuality
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sami Bouajila, Sveva Alviti, Alice Verset, Kaaris, Kevin Janssens
Credits: Directed by Julien Leclercq, written by Jérémie Guez. A Blue Fox release.
Running time: 1:34