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Mayhem!

An exclamation point in a title is a promise. The first action flick of the year is not called “Mayhem,” it’s called “Mayhem!” You're supposed to yell it excitedly as you buy your ticket. Although it would more accurately be called “Mayhem?” 

Because the fact is that vicious genre director Xavier Gens doesn’t fulfill on the punctuation in his premise, especially in the interminable first half of the film, which starts with a bang that portends “The Raid”-esque non-stop action and then spins its wheels in set-up that feels like it takes forever. Once the action does pick up again, presuming you’re still awake, there are a few undeniably impressive sequences, including another hallway brawl that feels thinly inspired by “Oldboy” and a spectacular battle with knives and guns in the close quarters of an elevator. These bursts of visceral power aren’t enough to get over the film’s many lulls or how much time is spent in service of a bare-bones, cheaply manipulative vengeance plot that never deepens its stakes to feel anything but two-dimensional. Maybe it should have been called “... Mayhem.”

The director who broke through with “Frontier(s)” and directed that atrocious “Hitman” adaptation starts “Mayhem!” with a reasonably effective prologue. We’re introduced to Sam (Nassim Lyes) as he works out in a prison gym, where a massive fight breaks out. Sam stays away from the action, being lauded for his reticence in the next scene. The idea is that Sam is the kind of man who could kill you with a punch, but he knows the cost of violence. Shortly after release, he’s chased by some nameless baddies into a construction site and ends up killing one of them in self-defense. To stay away from both the law and the people who now want him dead even more, he flees to Thailand, where he meets a woman named Mia (Loryn Nounay), starting an entirely new life with her and her daughter Dara (Chananticha Tang-Kwa).

Cut to years later and Sam and his wife want to buy some land on the water, but they’re thwarted by a crime lord named Narong (Olivier Gourmet). It turns out that the corrupt powers that be want the land, and they will do anything to get it, including killing Sam’s wife and daughter. For reasons only explained by movie, Sam survives the assault, and “Mayhem!” finally gets into its main thrust as a vengeance thriller with a hero hunting down and killing everyone who ruined his life. It takes about 45 minutes to get here, which is an insanely long set-up for a movie that everyone in the theater will be able to chart from nearly the beginning of the film. It’s a sort of slow-burn structure that you see in horror, but that just doesn’t work in action.

Once “Mayhem!” gets to the punching, kicking, shooting, and stabbing, it’s admittedly hard to deny Gens’ skill with that kind of thing. There’s a sequence in a hallway—not the “Oldboy” one but a brawl earlier in a mansion—that’s remarkably well-choreographed, and that’s topped later by the aforementioned elevator one in which Sam has to defeat some well-armed enemies in a tight space. Lyes definitely has action star chops in these scenes, even if he’s not as effective in the dramatic beats. 

Gens and his team don’t quite understand the story they’re telling either, feeling at times like they’re aiming for a gritty thriller about child trafficking and gang violence only to explode any sense of realism with their indestructible hero. It doesn’t help a movie like this to use real issues like sex trafficking either because it just adds a layer of grime to something that’s, by its very nature, escapism. There’s a reason “John Wick” was just about a guy avenging his dog. Simple is often better, and “Mayhem!” too often clutters what works about it with exploitation or shallow characterizations. Come to think of it, they could have called that movie “John Wick!” and no one would have complained.

In theaters today.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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