One of the biggest travesties during the annual Oscars celebration is the continued disregard for stunt work. Sure, studios and talent will rave about the incredible, death-defying work that Tom Cruise attempts in the latest Mission: Impossible film and franchises like Fast & Furious make bank on the ridiculous nature of their stunts, yet there’s no recognition for it come awards season. Considering the box office draw that stuntmen-turned-directors Chad Stahelski (John Wick series) and David Leitch (Deadpool 2/Atomic Blonde) are becoming, perhaps a turning point is on the rise. Like Stahelski and Leitch, director Jesse V. Johnson (Triple Threat) is a name audiences should get comfortable with as he delivers much of what audiences crave: solid stories, tight action, and believable stunt work. His and frequent collaborator Scott Adkins’s (Triple Threat) new film Avengement is a crackling, bone-crunching crime drama which advocates that action films are best left to the professionals.
Sent to lockup for a robbery gone wrong, Cain Burgess (Adkins) finds himself the target of every murdering degenerate in a detention center lovingly called, “The Meat Grinder.” Though a proficient boxer, Cain’s no murderer, and it takes every ounce of will to survive wave after wave of attackers. When an opportunity to escape appears, Cain not only busts out of jail, he cuts a clean swath through the people he believes responsible for the hell he’s endured, each person getting him a step closer to his final target: his older brother Lincoln (Craig Fairbrass).
Audiences looking for violence are going to find more than they can handle within Avengement. The script by Stu Smalls (Accident Man) and Johnson is tightly constructed to focus on the dramatic elements that give the multiple fight sequences their weight. This translates to a film which is dynamic in its physical stunt work and narrowly focused on the narrative. A good fight in a story isn’t just about spectacle or violence, but about communicating something from the perspective of the characters. Do they primarily use their fists or melee weapons? Are they aware of their surroundings or obtuse to what may trip them up? How do they adapt to their situation? In this regard, a good fight reveals to the audience an aspect which dialogue is to clumsy to articulate. In Avengement, each punch received or delivered is translated as more than clumsy rampage because Smalls and Johnson choreograph each fight to enhance the needs of the narrative at that time. Even at its most visceral, the violence carries meaning. Impressively, each fight is designed and executed to put the audience right in middle and refuses to look away from the carnage. Forgoing any kind of extravagant or elaborate stunts, Johnson, fight coordinator Dan Styles (Kingsman: The Secret Service/Guardians of the Galaxy), and stunt department coordinator Matthew Stott ground every sequence, making the force, the exertion, and the aftermath as realistic as possible. Since Avengement is, above all, a crime drama, the violence is never glorified or reveled in; it’s shown as a terrible cost for a life of violence. In a dark, yet beautiful moment, Johnson removes the score for the final throwdown. No distractions, no background noise to suggest one emotion or another, just the sounds of death. In this moment, Johnson makes the message within the physicality clear.
Tucked within the promise of brutality of Avengement is a core narrative of betrayal and redemption. Though there’re two moments in Avengement which I observed through my finger-slits, the real hard-to-watch butchery comes in the way the film tells the story of brothers Cain and Lincoln. For the biblically-minded, naming a character Cain initially marks him as the one to be wary of, even as the lead of the story. However, as the film plays out, Cain is exposed as the innocent of the two, sent to Hell as punishment and forced to exist in a constant state of fear and torment. The reason why, however, is small and not insignificant, teased and bread-crumbed all the way until it’s ultimate reveal. For their part, Adkins and Fairbrass do some incredible scenework together, even if it’s altogether brief. In that time, however, both actors manage to shift between surprise, rage, and despair without ever falling into cliché. Even as they discuss a shared pain amidst Cain’s rampage, rather than halting the narrative with false emotionality, their performances not only move everything forward but make an already painful rivalry more heartbreaking. Adkins particularly shines here by conveying a physical and psychological journey which could’ve been superficial, leaning into the more barbarous attitudes audiences expect. Instead, Adkins subverts the expectation of his character as a fearsome killer and shows him to be a reluctant bagman, a good man pushed too far.
For all the surprising good within Avengement, Johnson’s repeated use of flashbacks slowly puts a strain on the flow of the story. There are a few sequences which are more about telling than showing as they rely on frequent voiceovers from Cain. They are absolutely necessary to attain the right dramatic levels, ratcheting the tension at every turn; however, their prevalence undercuts the natural flow. It’s a strange dilemma because some flashbacks offer some delightful surprises, some of which would not have the right emotional heft when told with a straight narrative, yet a straighter narrative would enable the story to progress without so much voiceover interruption. Compared to the whole of what works, this is a quibble and likely comes down to the preference of the observer. It’s just one of those things that when it’s noticed, it cannot go unnoticed.
Director Jesse V. Johnson is rapidly becoming a director to watch. In films like Triple Threat and Avengement, he demonstrates a phenomenal ability to present fight scenes in a manner which not only pushes the story forward, but, just as importantly, is easy for audiences to track, managing to make complicated stunt work appear natural and realistic. With Avengement, however, Johnson also demonstrates a strength in executing less genre-based dramatic films as some of the most agonizing moments come not from punches, stabs, or kicks, but from the way Avengement utilizes familial relationships to propel the action. By all accounts, Avengement is another in a long list of films from 2019 that break expectations by defying conventions.
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital May 24th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.