There are certain director-actor pairings that just excite audiences when they hear about them. Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Sam Rami and Bruce Campbell. Jesse V. Johnson and Scott Adkins. Johnson and Adkins first worked together in 2005’s Pit Fighter and new release Debt Collectors marks their seventh collaboration. Johnson, a former stuntman, knows exactly how to get the best out of his physically-minded casts and can be counted on to bring the best, and most varied performances, out of Adkins.
In the seven months since the end of The Debt Collector, French (Adkins) and Sue (Louis Mandylor) find themselves right back where they didn’t expect to be: running down debtors for Tommy (Vladimir Kulich). Sue promises that it’ll be a big payout which may provide French the chance to open his martial arts gym back up, but it’s what Sue doesn’t say that matters. He’s sworn off alcohol and violence, so the former boxer is only along to supervise, a revelation that doesn’t sit well with the former paratrooper. To make matters worse, Barbosa’s (Tony Todd) brother Molly (Ski Carr) is in town and is looking for vengeance. What should be an easy three-pick-up job quickly turns into another fight for their lives.
“Live,” by the way, is the operative word when it comes to Debt Collectors. For those unfamiliar, French and Sue were a little worse for wear at the end of the first film, the screen going dark with credits rolling right as it seemed French was passing out in Sue’s car. This is all brilliantly blown past within the first 10 minutes as the stage is set for a new adventure. Frankly, if the audience had been given even less to go on as to what happened to French and Sue, the story might’ve been tighter as suddenly questions arise with details and a timeline. The time in between each tale also offers Debt Collectors not only its prime antagonist, but also sets up the internal drama that directs much of the decisions our characters make. For Sue, his brush with death inspires him to avoid that which would harm him. It’s a largely direct flip from his characterization in the original, offering Mandylor to dig into Sue’s pathos in a similar manner as the original. This time, though, there’s more weight and intensity as Mandylor lets the audience see just how far Sue’s being pushed. It was late into the original when the audience learned of the loss of Sue’s daughter. It becomes a significant turning point in that film from a grubby comedy into drama and it’s used again here for similar purposes. Thanks to Mandylor’s performance, it’s a character beat that doesn’t feel emotionally manipulative to the audience and makes the emotional and philosophical changes to Sue in-line with a life-and-death experience. Amusingly, though Adkins is capable of dramatic work (see: Avengement), his take on French remains more of the fish-out-of-water comedic type, where French is tricked again and again into taking beatings for Sue with the promise of something financial on the other side. I won’t speculate if this is to allow Adkins to showcase a different side of himself, but he’s aptly suited for comedy, utilizing fantastic timing in his line delivery. Doesn’t hurt that Adkins and Mandylor have just fantastic chemistry together.
Chances are, if you’re coming to a Johnson/Adkins production, you’re coming for the stunts. While none pack quite the punch as the hilariously executed Harvey Smalls sequence in the first film, a prolonged retrieval at a boxing gym does come close. Strangely, it’s not memorable so much for the stunts as for the way it moves French and Sue forward as characters. In this exchange, Mandylor and Adkins convey just how far apart they are physically and psychologically. For the record, while the fights are still quite a bit of fun, there’s an action sequence that I long to find out if it’s a subtle They Live reference because it so deeply does nod toward it in the length, tone, and approach. Stunt work aside, where Debt Collectors hits its stride is within the script by Johnson and frequent co-writer Stu Small (Avengement). The fact that amid all the macho posturing, the frequent oil-and-water buddy comedy beats, all the set-ups to get from one fight sequence to another, there still manages to be some heart to the story. Mixed with engaging performances from Adkins and Mandylor, The Debt Collector series is one you can revisit because neither French nor Sue are treated as interchangeable meathead doofs. They are motivated by singular senses of honor, possess understandable needs, and would always prefer to do things the easy way but are more than capable of addressing things the hard way.
Though there is much that works with Debt Collectors as a sort of ‘80’s action throwback, there are little bits that don’t work as well, though they aren’t so bad as to bringg down the overall experience. It’s not the narrative or the performances from the leads, but aspects of Molly and his crew. Don’t get me wrong, Carr makes for a believable villain full of righteous anger, it’s just that he doesn’t have the same gravitas as Todd. Combined with an outfit that seemed straight for a blaxploitation film, Molly isn’t so much a terror as an obstacle. It certainly didn’t help that his crew didn’t seem anywhere near as capable as Barbosa’s. The narrative leans hard on the premise that Molly’s a big deal from San Francisco and he’s out for blood. It’s a shame that none of that menace carries through. To be fair, though, audiences don’t come to see the villain of these flicks. They show up to watch Adkins and Mandylor bicker and fight. Thankfully, it’s clear from watching the performances that they, too, are having a great deal of fun, which is likely why the end of Debt Collectors is a backdoor opening to a third film. It happens naturally and seems fully free from the storyline begun in The Debt Collector. This will undoubtedly be the most freeing thing because finding a reason to put French and Sue in jeopardy can only go so far before things get ridiculous. Of course, French will likely be there pointing out just how ridiculous it is, as he is prone to do.
For more information on Debt Collectors, head to the official Samuel Goldwyn website.
Available on VOD May 29th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.