Jesse V. Johnson tries to make a new action icon.
This installment of Heavy was suggested by Michael Scott @hibachijustice. Thanks Michael!
Jesse V. Johnson is arguably the most exciting filmmaker working in DTV action today. With a list of credits that include The Package (2012), Accident Man, The Debt Collector, Triple Threat, and Avengement, the stuntman-turned-director has played a big part in turning Scott Adkins into a giant star, as their collaborations have been among the most exciting and entertaining efforts the genre has offered in recent years. That's why it bums me out just a little to see Johnson breaking from that partnership for his latest film, 2019's The Mercenary, in order to create a vehicle for Belgian martial artist and stuntman Dominiquie Vandenberg, with whom the director had previously worked on Triple Threat.
This is Vandenberg's first attempt at headlining a film, playing Max, part of a team of mercenaries working for a cartel in South America. His team, led by Louis Mandylor (reuniting with Johnson after the surprisingly good The Debt Collector; he's also a producer here), doublecrosses him and leaves him for dead, but he's nursed back to health by an order of priests. Trying to leave his life of violence behind him, Max devotes his life to servitude -- until, of course, the mercenaries return to the village and discover him still alive. Then all bets are off and all bodies are destroyed.
If DTV action films are the modern-day equivalent of exploitation movies, then The Mercenary (the title appears on screen as simply Mercenary) probably suffers from the same issue that plagued those films: it has an exciting first act and a bravura finale, but sags a lot in the middle. There's not enough plot to sustain the nearly 60 minutes that make up The Mercenary's second act, as evidenced by the fact that Max is left for dead by the people not once but twice. I'm not trying to be the guy who comes to DTV action for strong plots or impressive narratives -- these movies only need to get the job done -- but when the film begins to repeat itself by the hour mark, the screenplay by David Filmore begins to show its limitations.
The good news is that its positives outweigh those limitations by a pretty wide margin, resulting in a DTV action film that delivers the goods the way we fans have come to expect from Jesse V. Johnson. More than anything, The Mercenary surprises in its sheer level of violence. This isn't just a movie of punching and kicking. Throats spray blood. Heads are destroyed. Every gunshot -- and there are a lot of them -- is squibbed for maximum red splatter. Like with Avengement, the director's other 2019 offering, Johnson presents us with a man whose life has come to be defined by violence, for whom death is an art. Though less a blunt instrument than Scott Adkins in Avengement, Vandenberg's Max is a living weapon, a man at his best when he's taking human life. Even a priest says as much to him: that maybe God created him as a tool, and that he should be doing what he was put on Earth to do. There's no killing quite like a priest-sanctioned killing.
In his first leading role, Vandenberg acquits himself ok. His role doesn't require much dialogue, in large part because his throat is cut in an early confrontation, rendering him mute for part of the running time. Though he does regain his ability to speak relatively quickly, he remains the typical action hero of few words, defined by deeds and not words. It's just that his deeds happen to be very bloody and leave a wake of corpses. Vandenberg is interesting as an action lead, lacking the movie star looks of Adkins or Van Damme (he's more of a balder, brawnier Terence Stamp) or the bulk of Schwarznegger. But reading a little bit of his biography reveals him to be a real-life badass: a competitive martial artist champ turned Legionnaire turned freestyle fighter turned stuntman turned actor. He comes by his status as an action star honestly.
Until its go-for-broke climax, I wasn't totally sold on The Mercenary. It was entertaining in a perfunctory way, which is not what I've grown accustomed to from director Jesse V. Johnson. Vandenberg was fine, but not necessarily the type of action star that's going to draw me from project to project. Those last 20-25 minutes, though, turned me around on the movie and made me a fan through the sheer insanity of their carnage. It's not one of my favorite JVJ joints, but it's still really badass when it wants to be and an action movie I'd recommend to any hardcore #HeavyAction fans. I'm excited to report that Johnson's next feature will reunite him with Scott Adkins for a sequel to The Debt Collector. If he wants to make another movie with Vandenberg after that, well, I'll allow it.
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