In just the last two years, Jesse V Johnson and Scott Adkins have put out five films. In a world where it can often either take years and years to get a single independent film made or two intense years, with crews of thousands, paid for by big studios to get one movie into theatres, in that time, Johnson and Adkins have released five. You’d be forgiven, looking at the posters, or reading the blurbs that these were just run-of-the-mill, straight-to-streaming action films - not that that’s a bad thing, after the 80s/90s we are living through another golden age of action cinema right now - but the truth of it is, these five films, culminating with Avengement, chart the course of an action star and a director both honing and improving their craft and scaling new heights.
Adkins has made such impressive leaps in his acting over the last few years and, especially, in these five films. He was always an onscreen bad ass with impressive and varied martial arts, slogging away in watchable action films but from Savage Dog to Avengement he has shown himself to be a versatile leading man with nuance and depth, capable of both comedy and drama.
Likewise Jesse Johnson - who was always able to elevate the subject matter and lower budgets into something more cinematic with his collaborations with his cinematographers, especially regular Jonathan Hall, and his keen interest in characters and story over mere spectacle - has grown into a strong storyteller and screenwriter able to engagingly keep many plot plates spinning in the air and make it look effortless.
Avengement is one such story. Told by its protagonist, Adkins as Cain, in a series of revelatory and often brutal flashbacks while he holds a few members of London’s criminal underworld hostage in a pub. It has to both maintain the tension of the face off unfolding in the boozer, while also changing and challenging your perceptions of those involved through the telling of how they all got there. It’s a high-wire act from writer/director Jesse Johnson who impressively navigates the twists and turns of the story, making it a fascinating and exciting watch.
The story, essentially, is about an escaped convict, Cain Burgess (Adkins), younger brother of London crime kingpin, Lincoln Burgess (Craig Fairbrass), who returns to the gang’s stomping ground to right the wrongs done to him by the orgnisation. To reveal anymore would be to spoil it but it feels a little like a cultural successor to other British films like Scum meets The Long Good Friday.
Make no mistake, Avengement is resolutely and unapologetically British. It is unflinching in its depiction of violence, especially prison violence, the skies above the city are perpetually grey and cloudy like only a British sky can be and there’s enough f’ing and blinding in this to make Samuel L Jackson blush. Those offended by the Brits liberal and gleeful use of swear words should probably avoid this movie, while also looking around the world, seeing the state its in, and shutting their “f’ing mouf you caaarrrnt!”
The cast has a fine time putting on their characters of East London heavies, each of them playing up either the comedy, the nonchalance or the menace of their roles perfectly. Cinematographer Jonathan Hall shoots the whole film in both a realistic starkness and, where moments and scenes allow, an eye on the rich and vibrant shadows, these people inhabit.
The honesty of the violent action sequences in this film made even this hardened action and horror film viewer flinch on several occasions but it was also gratifying to see that a lot of the fisticuffs and gun-play in the film serviced the plot, the characters and, often, justified their future actions. It was an exceptional example of a film distributor and marketers need for the requisite level of kicking, punching, headbutting and certain exploitation elements to sell a movie being so perfectly and tightly wound into the story itself rather than just being action for actions sake. The violence is never showy either, this is not the balletic speed and arguable beauty of the martial arts in, say, The Raid or Adkins’ own Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear but rather it’s wonderfully choreographed, gritty, uncompromising rough and tumbles where the performers utilise what’s to hand and the skills they possess - some are better than others but this is not a world where, out of the blue, gangsters know jiu jitsu for no good reason.
The draw of Avengement though, outside the compelling storytelling and the flawless action - and there is boatloads of relentless and plentiful action - is Scott Adkins. He expertly takes the character of Cain from the good-natured, naive and hopeful brother, looking to go legit, to the snarling, spitting, metal teethed, facially scarred, brutal and violent thug hellbent on tearing his brothers life to bits, all the while remembering where Cain came from, what his heart still feels and playing that subtly beneath the pain and rage. It’s a breathtaking performance, one I can’t recall seeing in any other cockney crime caper or action film outside of the early 80s British drama/crime films I referenced earlier.
When his leaked Batman audition surfaced online I remember being really impressed, while cursing weak-spined casting directors for never taking a chance on Adkins. Here is an actor who is out there, arguably, working harder than just about any other actor could claim and Avengement is his mind-blowing shout from the roof tops “ignore me now at your peril!” It is a climax to all his years and years of paying his dues, putting the work in and developing his skills.
Us fans and followers of their work want great success for Adkins and Johnson, who deserve the attention, distribution, bigger budgets and time that studios could afford them.
Unfortunately, much like the work of Adkins’ closest contemporary, Jason Statham, big screen success in the current climate is making the likes of Meg or the Fast and Furious franchise, which, while I unashamedly love them, are hardly bastions of deep, great acting and emotional truths. Much like I fear the time of Statham stretching himself and making work like Hummingbird/Redemption or The Bank Job is over and while I do, very sincerely, wish greater and greater successes for Johnson and Adkins - together or apart - I, for one, am relishing these last couple of years that showed this creative team taking risks, pushing themselves and finding interesting and varied stories to tell. May they always strive to do so, whatever the budget.