Across his 30+ year career, Jean-Claude Van Damme has been the Kickboxer, the Universal Soldier and the Replicant, but now, in his best lead role since JCVD, he is The Bouncer.
Opening with a magnificent following shot of Van Damme’s Lukas, the gritty and bleakness of The Bouncer is well and truly established. Initially working as a bouncer in a generic nightclub, Lukas is shown to be proceeding in the usual expectancies of a bouncer’s nightshift: observing the safety and intervening when there’s a sight of trouble, Lukas is a good employee doing what he can. During another routine intervention, however, an accident occurs resulting in Lukas losing his job.
A single parent, Lukas is the sole provider for his daughter Sarah (Alice Verset), and struggles to keep up with tuition payments. Quite clearly not the type to get a job in a supermarket, Lukas has no choice but to apply to be a bouncer in a stripclub used as a front by criminal fraudsters.
In The Bouncer, Van Damme’s performance is rather stripped down. Knowing that Lukas is physically trained and portrayed by Van Damme, one would expect to see an array of roundhouse kicks and so on, but instead viewers are treated to hard-hitting, authentic-feeling, tough blows. To see Van Damme this way is exceptional – he looks a seasoned veteran and toughman without portraying a thuggish image, nor cocky with fast-paced flare. Emotionally Van Damme is somewhat stripped down too, almost reminiscent of Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here. Refreshing is only one of many positive descriptions of Van Damme in The Bouncer.
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Director Julien Leclercq is successful in blending genres and styles in The Bouncer, from gritty drama to gritty crime thriller. The only slight flaw in this transition is that The Bouncer can feel somewhat routine in its story, although despite this there is an occasional feel of unpredictability causing viewers to feel tension and unease – but this is good. Making the viewer feel the film, be it through a character’s emotion, striking imagery or other types of form, it is an exceptional talent and Leclercq has done it successfully in The Bouncer.
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Visually, Leclercq is also magnificent in displaying the culture of the bouncer job role. Early on, and frequently, Lukas is captured looking on at nightclub crowds to ensure safety – during this, there are no MTV-esque shots of nightclubs, instead, there is darkness and a lack of vibrancy, successfully denoting Lukas’ job throughout the night. In avoiding glamourisation, Leclercq presents a very boring world, somewhat of an antithesis of Scarface (nightclubs, stripclubs and crime) and Road House (bouncing).
The grittiness in The Bouncer is not exclusively present in visual, but is apparent in sound also. Having to get physical here and there, Lukas can throw the odd punch, but the way in which the sound is presented suggests a ‘real’ element to the assaults, and coinciding with non-blockbuster editing, the display of fighting and action is unconventional to the typical display of western fighting. Had the fighting in The Bouncer undergone the treatment of rapid editing, the authenticity and grittiness would no longer be present, and the fight sequences would feel disastrously out of place.
When admiring Van Damme’s performance in The Bouncer, and observing the film in general, it is remarkable that he has been living within the realm of direct-to-video (minus the odd exception) for over 20 years now. JCVD should have relaunched Van Damme back into the mainstream, but the only payoffs in the subsequent years were direct-to-video Universal Soldier sequels, the Coors Light ads, and a villainous role in The Expendables 2. Hopefully, The Bouncer will have a good exposure on both the home video market and VOD. The truth is that The Bouncer exceeds the generic expectations and quality often displayed in direct-to-video cinema, and is more than worthy of a duration on the big screen. This should/could be Jean-Claude Van Damme’s comeback.