Darkness of Man

Darkness of Man (2024)

“If I had to tell myself how I got here, just like every story, it started with a girl.” To the accompaniment of these words in voiceover, James Cullen Bressack’s Darkness of Man begins near its end. For the speaker is Interpol agent Russell Hatch, who lies supine on the ground, bleeding and dying from a bullet to the belly after a shootout in Los Angeles. Before any more specific context is provided, the film rolls back to two years earlier in Miami: as his voiceover insists that “anyone who’s walked in darkness knows that there’s no point in making promises,” in a diner teetotal Russell meets with his Korean informant and lover Soo-min Kim, aka Esther (Chika Kanamoto), who will secure from him a promise to look after her – but not his – young son Jordan should anything happen to her. Not long afterwards, Esther is murdered in her hotel room by gangsters who make her death look like a drug overdose, while Russell, at the warehouse address that Esther had just provided, is hit in a(nother) shootout by a bullet to the shoulder. It is a beginning as bleak as the ending that it portends – even if it also makes it clear that Russell is a man who dies hard.

Two years later, back in LA, everything is different. Russell is laying low in a motel, numbing his pain with alcohol addiction, occasionally meeting DEA Agent Yates (Kirk ‘Sticky Fingaz’ Jones), not quite committing to veterinarian girlfriend Claire (Kristanna Loken), and keeping his word with the late Esther by watching over 15-year-old Jayden (Emerson Min), even if Jayden, himself damaged by the loss of his mother, is skipping school, acting out, and straying from the guardianship of his grandfather Mr Kim (Ji Yong Lee) to the criminal world of his uncle Dae Hyun (Peter Jae). Meanwhile a Russian gang led by Lazar (Andrey Ivchenko) is muscling in on Koreatown’s action, and in trying to protect the conflicted Jayden, Russell is once again placing himself in the crossfire of mob violence, even as he misreads the motives of everyone around him.

Russell is played by Jean-Claude van Damme, a martial artist synonymous with the kick-ass action of the Eighties and Nineties, even if, by 2008, Mabrouk el Mechri’s sophisticated meta-biopic JCVD was suggesting that the actor was already well past his prime and struggling to maintain his status in the second or even third tier of direct-to-video dreck shot cheaply in Eastern Europe. His very presence in Darkness of Man might suggest endless gunplay and fisticuffs, and even if more than one character refers to him as “old man”, Russell is not somebody to be underestimated, and can certainly hold his own in a fight against all comers. Yet one of this film’s great surprises and joys is the way that it sends an action hero through a different, if not quite entirely unrelated genre, and sees what emerges from the crosstalk. 

Darkness of Man

From that opening, grizzled voiceover (which continues intermittently throughout) to the fatalistic appointment that it makes with a gunshot wound, and from the rainy, neon-lit nocturnal scenes to the framed posters for Howard HawksThe Big Sleep (1946) and Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place (1950) that decorate the walls of Russell’s motel room, Darkness of Man is overtly film noir, and its fight scenes, when they come, are either elided completely or else shot in a stylised fashion – up very close, or entirely from a car’s interior – that withholds the expected blows and ballet of action and replaces them with something more elliptical and oblique. This in not just a man beating down his enemies, but a chump barreling down an existential path to his own mortality, and hampered – but also defined – by a promise made and kept till the end. In this corrupted LA, full of new kids on the block, all that Russell, himself an outsider, has is his lost love and his sense of honour – but those are perhaps enough to see him through.

There are other old timers making an appearance here. Cynthia Rothrock, who like van Damme enjoyed her martial-arts heyday in the Eighties and Nineties, cameos here as a hospital nurse, while Shannen Doherty, best known for her television work from the same period, here briefly plays a school teacher, in a scene so gratuitous that its only point appears to be to allow Doherty’s appearance. The overall effect is to show America as no country for old men – or women – even as it proves injudicious simply to dismiss the film’s senior characters or to rule them out for the count. For here, even death itself can be overcome, and out of so much darkness, a better, brighter future remains within reach, almost as the reward for remaining true, for better and for worse, to a vow and a principle.

strap: James Cullen Bressack’s LA-set thriller sends an ageing man of action on a noirish collision course with his own mortality

© Anton Bitel