There are two types of prison-escape movies: the elegant escapism type and the ones you want to escape yourself. Jesse V. Johnson’s white-knuckled thriller falls in the latter category. Caged by negligent cliches, flabby logic, and expressionless characters, this British Gangster enterprise is a bloody mess that will make you want to leave the gun, leave the Cannoli, and leave the theater.
Avengement finds Scott Adkins in avenger mode–it’s a given that he’s rephrasing the spirit of The Debt Collector, the wonderful action extravaganza that saw Johnson and Adkins team up last year. This year it’s a different story and a different result.
“…Burgess has rounded up the iniquitous locals by shotgun at the neighborhood pub.”
The story is set in the London suburbs. Where there seems to be a pub on every corner (think Starbucks here in America). Pubs figure significantly in the sobering action sequences. Adkin’s character, Cain Burgess, has rounded up the iniquitous locals by shotgun at the neighborhood pub. “I’ve got a big gun in my hands,” he growls, satisfying his throbbing need to prove his manhood.
The whole film plays like a hunk looking at himself in the mirror. Adkins is a hunk, and a fine performer, but to assume his audience wants to listen in on how he got his battle-scars for an hour and a half seems lugubriously misjudged. He’s just escaped the clink, or rather, knocked out his chaperones who were taking him to see his deceased mother. For seven years he had been rotting away in that frigid cell, and now it’s time to get revenge on those who put him there.
Sound familiar? This checks off every last trope on the mobster movie list. We find out that it was his rugged brother who put him there, put a reward on his head, and gave him both his physical and mental scars. Now his brother (Craig Fairbrass), along with his disgraced posse are held at gunpoint, listening to how he got the gold grill in his teeth, the knife marks in his skull, and how he took out droves of men by the skin on his knuckles. (The flashbacks to bone-crushing prison brawls are choreographed with grace).
“A bloody mess that will make you want to leave the gun, leave the Cannoli, and leave the theater.”
Ungraceful is this pictures perpetual paradox. It wants us to believe that Cain is cool in that tough guy kind of way. Yet it frames him as a snarling bully with zero likable qualities. He doesn’t just put the middle finger to the system, but to all those in his path.
Putting the middle finger to originality, narrative coherence, and deserving humor is Johnson. Who hoped to find entertainment in the killing of bad guys. But who exactly are the good guys here? What’s missing is what makes similar minded Scorsese features so effective: a fascinating sense of time and place, a flourishing sense of energy, and by turns, warmth, zest, and humor.
Johnson’s film by comparison—or by any comparison—is bleak stuff done thuddingly. Things do eventually come to an end in a bar brawl set for the record books. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s an ending. One should never take escape for granted.
Avengement (2019) Directed by Jesse V. Johnson. Written by Jesse V. Johnson, Stu Small. Starring Scott Adkins, Craig Fairbrass, Nick Moran, Thomas Turgoose, Kierston Wareing.