Initially part of the upstart, so-called New French Extremity, director Xavier Gens’ debut feature Frontier(s) displayed an amusingly outré sensibility, mashing together various horror tropes with nasty violence and the smash-and-grab editing style of a Bruckheimer production. He quickly (perhaps unsurprisingly) graduated to the Luc Besson/Europacorp school of factory filmmaking, in all its slick, sleek anonymity. Hitman wasn’t particularly popular, and Gens returned to short films and then a couple of low-budget horror features that barely got released in the U.S. (Cold Skin isn’t bad). Gens turned to television when funding for features dried up, helming a few episodes of the grimy, extremely violent British gangster show Gangs of London. Now, he’s back with a new action movie, although Mayhem! is so gory it almost verges on horror. If that sounds like a recommendation, it kind of is, but it takes an awfully long time for Mayhem! to get to any actual mayhem.
As the film begins, we are introduced to Sam (Nassim Lyes) as he serves time in prison. He’s about to be released on a temporary work program thanks to a record of good behavior, but as soon as he hits the street, his old life catches up with him. On the run from some gangbangers, Sam accidentally kills one of them in self defense. Convinced that no one will believe him and that his prison sentence will be extended, he flees to Thailand. A title card announces “Five years later,” and now Sam is married to a local woman, Mia (Loryn Nounan), with a 7 year old daughter, Dara, and a new baby on the way. Mia works at a local bar, while Sam ferries tourists from the airport to a local resort. He’s also an amateur kickboxer in his free time, occasionally throwing fights to make some extra money. He and Mia dream of opening their own bar on the beach, but even though they’ve saved enough money to buy the land, an unnamed third party has stepped in and outbid them. The couple is devastated, and so Sam decides to approach a local drug kingpin (Olivier Gourmet, very far away from his days with the Dardenne bros) about some extracurricular work. Fast forward a few minutes, and the mule job has, predictably, gone horribly awry.
This is a lot of plot, to put it mildly, and it occupies an interminable 45 minutes of a barely 90-minute movie. The drug lord commits a horrific act of violence against Sam’s family, at which point the film essentially resets itself and turns into a very straightforward revenge picture. The first half — a kind of social-realist drama tackling the daily struggles of a poor, illegal immigrant — bears virtually no resemblance to the second half, in which Sam transforms into an unstoppable killing machine on a quest to get Dara back. Once Sam has tracked the criminal syndicate to Bangkok, the film even makes a brief stop in Sound of Freedom territory with a cursory exploration of underage sex trafficking. It’s in pretty bad taste, wallowing in exploitation in a bid for strained seriousness. But eventually, finally, in its last 20 minutes or so, Mayhem! lives up to its title. Sam launches an assault on a drug den and proceeds to take out wave after wave of goons, culminating in a close-quarters battle inside of an elevator that escalates startlingly quickly. As others have mentioned, it’s here where Gen’s horror background shines through, as Sam fends off multiple attackers by snapping bones and severing arteries. It’s wonderfully choreographed and gleefully disgusting, with a churning, propulsive rhythm to the editing. It is, of course, up to the individual viewer if they think it’s worth sitting through an hour of competent (if unremarkable) melodrama to finally get to “the good stuff,” but for fans of Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans, the answer might very well be “yeah, sure.”
DIRECTOR: Xavier Gens; CAST: Nassim Lyès, Olivier Gourmet, Loryn Nounay; DISTRIBUTOR: IFC Films; IN THEATERS: January 5; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 49 min.