Movie Review: Avengement

Avengement (2019)

Director: Jesse V. Johnson

Writer: Jesse V. Johnson

Stars: Scott Adkins, Craig Fairbrass, Thomas Turgoose

Streaming on Netflix (as of 10/1/2019)

Avengement, the 2019 crime thriller written and directed by former stuntman Jesse V. Johnson, is brutally violent, swiftly plotted, and magnificently entertaining.  At only four minutes in, the movie’s star Scott Adkins, himself a former stuntman and competitive martial artist, dispatches a pub’s two doormen quickly and without warning.  Incidents of savagery such as this occur in nearly every scene in the film, and while this does appeal particularly to action junkies such as I, the excellent script and star-affirming performance of its lead correspond to transform what would be a cheap and gritty B-movie into a genuinely compelling thrill ride.

The film follows Cain Burgess (Adkins), a character who, through circumstances outside of his control, has become an animal.  His face at the beginning of the movie is covered in burn scars, he has a gash in his cheek and he has silver teeth.  All of these things are the consequence of injuries the viewer watches him sustain in one of the movie’s many flashback sequences.  In the hands of a less confident director, this backwards form of story construction might have rendered the film a narrative mess, but Johnson holds the structure together with aplomb, trusting that his star can keep an audience engrossed without exhausting them.

His star and frequent collaborator Scott Adkins holds the film together with an intense, seething performance.  We see as the movie goes along how Cain (Adkins) was transformed from a powerful yet gentle street tough into a hardened psychopath, and each phase of this evolution makes perfect sense.  The story adheres to a structure wherein it transfers intermittently among three periods of time, which could potentially become confusing, but Johnson does a remarkable job of allowing the narrative to direct its own path.  Both Johnson and Adkins grew up in densely populated, urban sectors of England, and their experience with the seedier characters and settings clothes their film in authenticity.

Despite the characters, language and violence which all seem to my American ears genuine, there is no denying that Avengement is a fantasy.  This fantasy is an undeniably brutal, pessimistic one, which allows the filmmakers to patch together some less-than stellar supporting performances with shockingly barbaric violence.  Overall, though I think that Adkins’ remarkable performance gives this bloody tableau a solid emotional footing, it’s primarily a grim, bloody good time in hell.

 

Unknown-9.jpeg

Movie Review: Avengement

Movie Review: Hard Eight

Hard Eight (1996)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Phillip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow

 

Hard Eight, the meticulously crafted first feature from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, There Will be Blood), is completely and unpredictably engrossing.  From the very beginning, when Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) offers to give John (John C. Reilly) a cigarette, buy him a cup of coffee, and teach him the ways of a professional low-stakes gambler, the film moves swiftly from one scene and setting to the next without pausing to take a breath.  Downhill plotting like this, where each scene leads to the next without an end in sight becomes a showcase for spellbinding performances from Hall, Reilly, a frighteningly charismatic Samuel L. Jackson, and perhaps most compellingly from an unforgettable Gwyneth Paltrow.

Clementine, Paltrow’s character, is an injured woman.  This can be assumed from the very first time we see her, clad in a provocative cocktail dress and sharply crimson lipstick, she absorbs the lecherous words and gazes of the men who surround her.  Her character, like every character in Hard Eight, has been forced by terrible circumstance into desperation, and is driven to take the only avenue she sees open to her.  The sadness in her every scowl and spoken word is heartbreaking, and the regret she harbors is only reaction to the world’s unrelenting cruelty.  This is just the same with John (Reilly), who begins the movie penniless and clueless, and crawls out of his trouble only by doing everything Sydney (Hall) tells him to.  Despite these two assured performances, both of which are complex and layered, the movie belongs to Hall, who fills the story with both structure and emotion.

Sydney (Hall) begins the movie speaking seriously, posing himself as a no-nonsense pragmatist, one offering aid to society’s castoffs for no reason other than that they needed help.  As the story progresses and we learn of the reasons Sydney does what he does, the emotion breaks through but only subtly; almost unnoticeably.  After John (Reilly) and Clementine (Paltrow) have a quickie wedding at a Reno chapel, Sydney watches the wedding tape, and though he barely moves a muscle throughout the scene, the intense emotion roiling underneath is extremely powerful.  For the entirety of the film, he stands as an immovable post around which all the emotion and intrigue of the film swirl, and the emotion behind his tight face and businesslike behavior hide a well of intense feeling.

This brings me to the significance of the title Hard Eight, which I think reveals the purpose of the film as a whole, and of Sydney’s (Hall) character in particular.  Hard eight refers to one of the stupidest bets one can make at a craps table.  It means not only are you betting that the two die, when rolled, will equal eight, but that you will win the bet only when the total eight is reached by two fours.  This makes the odds of a roll achieving hard eight only one in thirty-six.  This means that late in the film, when Sydney places a thousand-dollar bet on hard eight, he does it fully understanding that he more than likely will never see his money again.  This is a movie about sad, hopeless people struggling to make due in a world that wasn’t made for them.  And with the direction of a blossoming master making every emotion powerfully tangible, it is an exhiirating viewing experience.

 

Unknown-8.jpeg

Movie Review: Hard Eight