In the realm of motion pictures, you occasionally find ongoing collaborations between directors and certain actors – Scorsese/De Niro, Scorsese/Dicaprio, Burton/Depp, Carptenter/Russell… British action auteur Jesse V. Johnson seems to be shaping such a relationship with martial artist Scott Adkins with movies like The Debt Collector and Accident Man. Their latest collaboration, Avengement, is a high water mark for them, with old-fashioned bone-crunching action cleverly woven into a nearly mythic context. Most of the story is told in non-linear flashbacks, as escaped convict Cain (Adkins) – whose biblical name is not coincidental – sits in a pub and explains to a motley but colorful group of local toughs and thugs why he’s pointing a gun at them.
As the story begins, convict Cain, who’s scarred inside and out, is granted a furlough to see his dying mother. Unfortunately, she’s already dead by the time he gets there. The infuriated Cain takes the opportunity to escape – a six-man security detail was clearly inadequate. Cain makes his way to a secret London pub where he regales the female bartender and a bunch of underworld types led by Hyde (Nick Moran), who at first fails to recognize Cain due to his facial scarring.
Before his life went south, Cain was a law-abiding professional boxer, before being convinced to do a favor for his mob boss brother Lincoln (Craig Fairbrass), which went wrong, leaving Cain holding the bag and the prison sentence. While surviving prison, which entails uncountable beatings, Cain also discovers the full extent of his brother’s criminal exploits. Once free, he doesn’t just want revenge – he wants to set things right.
As Cain, Adkins is electrifying – he has an incendiary, almost ferocious intensity reminiscent of a young Richard Harris. Combine that with his martial arts chops, and you have perhaps the most exciting action star since Bruce Lee. This explosive, bloody revenge drama needs his type of presence to really work, and work it does.
The screenplay, co-written by Johnson and Stu Small, is anything, smarter than it needs to be, but its nonlinear, time-jumping structure is never dull and saves key plot points for maximum impact. Director Johnson deliberately eschews stagey, balletic flourishes, relying instead on a spare economical approach which is highly effective, visually exciting and frequently cringe-inducing.
Smart, spare and savage, Avengement relies on emotional content rather than sheer spectacle to draw the audience in, and lo and behold, it works. Without so much as destroying one galaxy, Avengement is a vivid reminder that the best action movies rely on rooting for a hero far more than stunt shows. This is a bone-cruncher that hits its target.
Samuel Goldwyn Films will release Avengement in theaters, On Demand and Digital May 24, 2019.