It wasn’t until I sat down to watch Jean-Claude Van Damme’s latest Darkness of Man that I realised it has been quite a while since the veteran action star has headlined a proper action film. Sure, there was the enjoyably silly The Last Mercenary (2021), but that was much more a spoof of the action genre, with Van Damme once again sending up his image as he had done previously in JCVD (2008) and Jean-Claude Van Johnson (2016).

For a proper hard hitting Van Damme vehicle, you would have to look back to the likes of The Bouncer a.k.a Lukas (2018) or We Die Young (2019), both of which gave him as much opportunity to show off his acting skills as they did his action ones. Similarly to those two mentioned, Darkness of Man isn’t a full blown actioner like those which Van Damme made his name on, but there is still a decent mix of gritty fight scenes and shootouts to please both Van Damme and general action fans.

Van Damme plays burnt out ex Interpol Agent Russell Hatch, a man whose best days are behind him. A raging alcoholic due to the death of informant Esther (Chika Kanamoto), the only thing that keeps him going is the promise he made to keep Esther’s son Jayden (Emerson Sim) safe. To help out, he does odd jobs for Jayden’s grandfather Mr Kim (Ji Yong Lee).

Mr Kim’s son Dae Hyun (Peter Jae) isn’t happy with his father seeming unwillingness to take action against the Russian gangsters encroaching on their turf, so he decides to take action against them which puts both Mr Kim and Jayden in harm’s way. With an all out gang war brewing, it’s up to Russell to go back to his old ways in order to protect them, with him doing whatever it takes to keep them safe.

I was initially apprehensive of Darkness of Man when I noted that it was the work of director James Cullen Bressack. No disrespect to the prolific filmmaker, but my own knowledge of Bressack was based upon a handful of Geezer Teaser features he has helmed, none of which were anyone’s best work. Sold on the names of veteran action stars like Steven Seagal, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson, Beyond the Law (2019), Survive the Night (2021) and Hot Seat (2022) all featured these former A-listers in minor roles even though they were prominently featured on the marketing material.

Thankfully this isn’t the case with Darkness of Man, with Van Damme being the main focus throughout. In fact, there is hardly a scene he doesn’t feature, with him giving a suitably world-weary performance. His character, Russell, has clearly been through a lot, with Van Damme’s age being used to great advantage. While he is still able to get into the thick of the action, this is no longer the balletic martial artist we grew up with. On occasions he actually takes as much punishment as he dishes out.

Unlike Seagal, Van Damme has always worked hard to please his fans, and that hasn’t changed here, with him even having a hand in writing the story for the film. Like the damaged characters he played in the aforementioned Lukas and We Die Young, Darkness of Man allows Van Damme to go through a gamut of emotions, with his character Russell unable to get over the death of Esther and his obligation to protect her son Jayden, a boy he struggles to get along with. It doesn’t help that Jayden is one of those asshole movie kids who treat the hero like shit.

In addition to appearing in almost every scene, Van Damme also contributes a voice over which isn’t really required but does add to the overall noirish tone that Bressack was aiming for. What also adds to the neo-noir feel is that for the most part, Darkness of Man takes place at night, with the streets being lashed with rain or on occasion, someone’s blood.

The film does have a noticeable digital look, but director of photography Pascal Combes-Knoke still manages to include some nice visuals, with an occasional use of neon lighting which was appreciated. With many DTV/VOD films, the visuals can be let down by the lack of funds which now and again rear their heads here. There is some extremely poor rear projection used which seems totally unnecessary. Would it have been so hard to film Van Damme holding a gun at night rather than unconvincingly trying to green screen him into a night time setting. As expected, there are also some poor looking gunfire effects, although not as many as expected with much of the gunplay and blood effects coming off well.

Speaking of the blood effects, I was pleasantly surprised with how gruesome Darkness of Man became as the film progressed, with people’s fingers being shot off, heads exploding and someone’s intestines even hanging out at one point. Now, it’s not at Rambo (2008) levels, but I appreciated that Bressack was willing to go that far in the depiction of violence.

As well as contributing a fine performance, as expected Van Damme also gets involved in several notable fight scenes. Action director Luke LaFontaine, who handled the action on last year’s terrific Boudica (2023), creates a handful of hard hitting action scenes. As mentioned, the fights have a grittier, rougher feel. There’s less use of fancy punches and kicks which make the action more realistic.

The standout for me is a garage set fight scene between Van Damme and a group of small-time gangsters. The entirety of the fight is shot from within the confines of a car, with the camera following the action as it moves around the outside of the vehicle. With some well timed camera work and blocking, Bressack is able to make the scene flow extremely well, with parts looking like they were pulled off in one take.

How the action is shot also allows Van Damme to be doubled when required, although this isn’t as noticeable as it sounds. This is partly due to the filmmakers smartly employing the talents of Todd Senofonte who has doubled Van Damme on numerous films going way back to Sudden Death (1995).

It would have been nice for maybe one or two more action scenes during the film. What is included is more than capably pulled off but perhaps the inclusion of more action would have helped with the pace of the film. Whilst the film is never boring, it does have some sections that could have been tightened to allow the film to run smoother.

Parts that could have been tightened is the inclusion of some redundant characters. Other than Kristana Loken, many of them feel included just to fill screen time. Sticky Fingaz shows up as Russell’s ex Interpol partner, but he doesn’t really add much to proceedings other than trying to temp Russell back into the fray. Even Peter Jae who is essentially the film’s main villain doesn’t feel as threatening as he should.

At least they get more to do than action legend Cynthia Rothrock who shows up for one pointless scene as a nurse. Likewise, Shannen Doherty appears in one pointless scene that would make you think she will appear later as does Kris Van Damme who doesn’t even get to share any screen time with his father. Even more inexplicable is an appearance from Eric Roberts as a customer at a taco van. His cameo would be worthwhile if it added to the plot or was comical, but nope, he merely buys a taco.

These appearances are part of my main issue with Darkness of Man. As great as Jean-Claude Van Damme is, there are no interesting characters for him to play against. The plot is typical generic revenge fare, with there being countless actioners with near identical plots. However what makes them stand out from the crowd is including engrossing characters with some notable dialogue. This is something that Darkness of Man is unable to do and is what stops it from being a truly memorable actioner.

The fact that this film is a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle is its main saving grace, and is no doubt what will attract most viewers. As a massive Van Damme fan I was just happy to see him back on screen but even then, I was still suitably entertained. It is nowhere close in quality to what he was making at the height of his stardom, or for that matter some of his later DTV efforts. Even so, there is enough Van Dammage to make this a worthwhile watch.

Darkness of Man is available now and can be purchased digitally HERE.

Plot: 3/5
Acting: 3/5
Action: 3/5
Overall: 3/5


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