Review by Daniel Lima
The Taken-sploitation film — an action film in which a man with a particular set of skills lights the world on fire in search of a loved one — is all about execution. Broadly speaking, all of these movies have the exact same narrative, but a work operating in this space has the opportunity to carve out a unique place for itself through how it builds its world, the emphasis it places on characterization, action design, and countless other variables. Mayhem! attempts to lean into the drama, and though it comes up short on that front, this is far more composed and effective than many of its peers.
Nassim Lyes stars as a French prisoner forced to live out his days as a fugitive in Thailand. Five years on, with a wife and stepchild to look after, he dips his toe into the murky criminal underworld. That blows up in his face, and so he finds himself fighting against time and every gangster in Bangkok in a quest to reunite his family.
Right off the bat, this isn’t winning any points on originality. Every expected beat this story could hit gets hit: the blissful domestic life, the “one simple job” that goes wrong, and the Orientalist portrayal of Thailand as a corrupt and decadent land of draconian governments and establishments of ill-repute. The only structural changes Mayhem! makes to the formula are baffling. Why spend so much time in France when so little of that context matters? Why does it take a full hour to get to the first proper action sequence? Why end on that bizarre final note? Even at less than 100 minutes, this film feels incredibly padded and bloated.
One would hope that the performances might flesh out the world of the film beyond what’s on the page, but no such luck. Lyes might be a martial artist and “French kickboxing champion” (though a cursory look for a fight record turns up nothing), but more impressive than his physical prowess is his utter lack of charisma. The supporting cast is serviceable, at least, with Olivier Gourmet phoning in the best performance of the lot. Credit where it’s due; the filmmaking craft is decent if workmanlike, befitting a journeyman director like Xavier Gens. This won’t win any awards for cinematography or editing, but it does feel like there is a steady hand at the wheel guiding the story along, even if it takes some odd turns and moves way too slowly.
Thankfully, the one area this action-thriller does deliver is the action. Gens worked on the television show Gangs of London with showrunner Gareth Evans and choreographer Jude Poyer. He credits that experience with showing him the importance of previsualization in shooting action set pieces. Working with Poyer again here, it’s clear that he took those lessons to heart, as all the fights in the film are incredibly complex while still remarkably clear. The choreography is brutal and violent, with the camerawork, editing, and sound design accentuating every excruciating hit. Considering that the last action movie from this director is the 2007 travesty Hitman, perhaps it’d be wise to let more filmmakers work under the direction of someone like Evans.
Despite that, Mayhem! is a hard film to recommend. The hyper-stylized violence is everything one would hope for in a movie like this, but it is all back-ended, with wholly uncompelling character drama taking up the bulk of the runtime. However, for anyone craving this style of action and the patience to sit through a charmless hour to get to it, this is a no-brainer.
Mayhem! is now available in theaters and on digital.