Hell Hath No Fury is something of a departure for Jesse V. Johnson, but the director once again delivers a tough, kinetic actioner, here aided by newfound narrative heft and twisty moralism.
Amongst the DTV faithful, there are a handful of directors that have distinguished themselves as truly high-caliber craftsmen of low-budget action. John Hyams is of course the director of the magisterial Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, one of the few DTV titles that has enjoyed some crossover mainstream success. There’s also Issac Florentine, who helped Scott Adkins build and refine his signature character, Boyka, throughout several Undisputed sequels. More recently, Adkins has collaborated most often with Jesse V. Johnson, who has carried the DTV torch while Hyams has focused more on television work and Florentine has slowed his output. Since 2017, Johnson has made 8 films (with another already in post-production), a remarkable period of sustained effort that has found him honing his craft while building relationships with a recurring stable of actors and technicians, namely Adkins and Louis Mandylor.
Hell Hath No Fury is something of a departure for Johnson; it’s a period piece, chronicling a desperate treasure hunt in rural France immediately following the end of WWII. There are plenty of gunfights and some hand-to-hand grappling, but none of the all-out martial arts that many of Johnson’s films have been comprised of. It’s one of the best screenplays he’s ever worked from, a twisty, complicated affair courtesy of writers Katharine Lee McEwan and Romain Serir. It also features a woman in the lead role, perhaps the biggest surprise for a filmmaker who’s traditionally worked with and focused on extremely macho men. Nina Bergman plays Marie, introduced first as the consort of a high-ranking Nazi officer, Von Bruckner (Daniel Bernhardt). When they’re ambushed by French resistance fighters, he escapes and she is taken prisoner as a traitor to her country. After the war’s end, Marie is released from prison and branded as a Nazi collaborator. The narrative then skips ahead and finds her suddenly in the company of an U.S. infantry unit that’s gone off the reservation in search of a hidden cache of gold. Marie and her Nazi lover had it in their possession when they were attacked, and she claims to know where it’s hidden. The Americans, led by Major Maitland (Mandylor), are a vile bunch, hardened by combat and unrepentant about the horrors they’ve inflicted during the course of the war. Here, Johnson inserts carefully placed flashbacks that fill in key moments of various characters’ backstories, including Von Bruckner — who is actually still alive despite being shot by Marie, and hunting for the gold himself — and Marie, who is unbeknownst to Von Bruckner and her American captors actually a member of the resistance. But what are her allegiances now?
Most of the narrative takes place in and around a decrepit country graveyard. Marie has told the Americans that the gold is hidden in a grave, but in the years since her imprisonment, the number of dead buried in the place has increased exponentially. Marie is certain that the Americans will kill her as soon as they’ve retrieved the gold, so she does her best to confuse or otherwise stonewall the soldiers in their search. But the men grow frustrated as they dig up grave after grave, and their increasingly violent interactions with Marie are tough to watch. Meanwhile, some French partisans are also on site, using old tunnels to move about undetected. Eventually, Von Bruckner and a small platoon of men will also descend upon the graveyard while fleeing Allied soldiers in the recently liberated cities of France. All these parties eventually converge in a sustained bit of all-out mayhem as each attempts to get their hands on the treasure. Alliances are forged and broken in the heat of battle, and all the while, Marie’s true allegiances are left tantalizingly unclear.
There are clear echoes of Verhoeven’s Black Book here, as well as some of the blunt, tricky moralism of Sam Fuller and slow-motion destruction of Sam Peckinpah. Louis Mandylor continues his winning streak of playing vicious men who possess a weariness that allows them glimmers of humanity; he’d be right at home in something like The Steel Helmet. Here, the U.S. military isn’t all that different than the Nazis they’ve been fighting. Johnson got his start as a second unit director, stuntman, and stunts coordinator, experience which plays out onscreen with his emphasis on hard, physical fighting and practical pyrotechnics. That’s to say, no one is going to confuse Hell Hath No Fury for a prestige awards picture — and that’s just fine. Johnson wants to make tough, kinetic action movies that leave a mark. Once again, mission accomplished.