Action movies are cool, because people get beat up. Sometimes they get stabbed. Other times they get shot a bunch. Every once in a while they blow up, and it’s fun to watch. People break a lot of furniture, which is nice, because sometimes I want to break a bunch of furniture but don’t want to then have to buy new furniture. It’s a filmic release valve unlike any other.
Cool-looking violence tickles my reptile brain in the best possible way, and director Jesse V. Johnson crafted last year’s best brain-tickling beatdown, Avengement. It’s a sweaty, bloody punchathon, and every time I think about it all I really want to do is watch it again. So, what better way could there be to kick off the new year than by checking out Johnson’s newest testosterone-pumping ultra-violence extravaganza?
Well, watching Avengement again, for one.
Director: Jesse V. Johnson
Released: January 7, 2020
The cumbersome balancing act of action cinema is one where the key is to make me shout at the screen when someone’s leg snaps like a chicken wing without stopping to wonder if I’m a shitty person for doing so. Usually this is accomplished through straightforward themes of fighting oppressors, natural good vs. evil stuff where you don’t have to consider if you should really be rooting for the dude currently ripping the jaw off a man three times his size. You’re with the hero because you also hate evil. It’s an easy sell.
This is complicated in the era of the morally ambiguous anti-hero. It’s a little hard to focus on the spin-kicks and throat stabs when I feel as if I’m looking through a window into the fantasies of someone with the worst kinds of opinions. This is a common issue with films like Death Wish and Rambo: Last Blood — using a genre where people often argue in favor of turning your brain off to push some gross-ass concepts. The problem is, if you turn your brain off, then those ideas are still getting through — maybe better than if you were actively thinking about what you were watching.
In The Mercenary‘s best action scene, Maxx (Dominiquie Vandenberg) is in Africa killing terrorists, I guess. This leads him to chase and murder a couple dudes inside some nondescript building, which turns out to be a mosque where a large group of Muslim men are praying. They run for conveniently placed guns, and Maxx begins to slaughter each of them in the most well-choreographed and impressively edited fight of the film. The problem is that killing a bunch of Muslims in a mosque sends a disgusting (and, of course, super ill-timed) message, and labeling everyone as terrorists doesn’t make it better.
Maybe this is meant to show the evils Maxx committed as a mercenary to set up his redemption later. Maybe we’re supposed to be revolted, but it’s impossible to tell between David Filmore’s sloppy and threadbare script and Vandenberg’s guy-doing-a-job performance. Whichever end you fall on, however, will color your interpretation of the rest of the film as its crux sees Maxx left for dead in Columbia with a knife slash across his throat. He’s then saved by a white Catholic priest who convinces him to turn away from violence. The read here is that Islam is a religion of violent barbarism and Catholicism is a religion of peace and perseverance that can instantly calm a savage soul. I’m sure it goes without saying that this is a hundred percent untrue.
Or, perhaps Maxx’s salvation by religion shows his transformation after showing such willingness to kill on holy ground? That would be an awfully generous interpretation which The Mercenary doesn’t earn at all. The mosque scene isn’t played that way. It seems to exist only to prove how awesome our hero is at killing men dead. That’s the issue with so many anti-hero action flicks. They want a character who’s tortured and morally gray, but they’re way more focused on making sure the dude looks like the baddest mother fucker to ever emerge from a womb, and any message is buried and lost. I’m all for unlikable heroes doing terrible things, but there’s a difference between having a hero who commits reprehensible acts and making a film in which reprehensible acts seem heroic.
Maybe the main issue is that when Maxx wakes up in the church, he doesn’t come to terms with his past. He doesn’t face his demons. We don’t see him transform. He’s suddenly done killing innocent people, and that’s that. He plays at being a pacifist for about ten minutes, until the priest that rescued him and preaches non-violence tells him that maybe God actually made Maxx specifically to kill people, so he should start killing--but for God this time. So, yeah, even after the mosque scene is long forgotten the script remains super dumb.
None of this will matter for a good majority of the brain-off crowd, so then what about the action itself? Johnson knows how to shoot fantastic brawls, but The Mercenary is not his finest work. Few fights really stand out, and there’s entirely too much gunplay. Guns are great when killing people, but dudes shouting while bullets blast from barrels to tear up some walls and boxes does nothing for me. Close quarters combat is often spliced together from multiple takes with the seams showing. Characters will suddenly change position between shots giving fights a slipshod feeling. Punches and kicks all move a bit slow, as well, lacking the energetic flow of great martial arts. The blood is generous, though. Punches are often punctuated with big spits of the red stuff, and much like in his (much better) film, Savage Dog Johnson isn’t afraid to go full horror at times with a gory head-crushing and crucifixion--which would have been way cooler if I wasn’t still thinking about that mosque scene.
Vandenberg also lacks a lot of the characteristic charm or charisma that carries B-action greats like Scott Adkins through underwhelming features. Close up, he has a solemn weathered look that certainly works in a Western sort of way, but when the camera pulls back, he disappears into scenes. Louis Mandylor is fantastic as evil mercenary boss LeClerc, though. He has strong, alcoholic-stepdad energy and a lively flair that makes him a joy to watch. It might help that he’s unburdened by any heroic pretense and can freely be the evil son of a bitch he needs to be.
Jesse V. Johnson has made better movies--even Triple Threat--that aren’t as thematically shitty or lackluster in beatdowns as The Mercenary. If you can in fact turn your brain off for the film, then you’ll find bits and pieces to tickle the most lizardy bits of your brain, but it’s really not worth the headache if you do decide to stop and think for even a second.