Hollywood churns out big action epics reliant on CG set-pieces and a disregard for physics, and sometimes they make for a fun time at the movies. For my money, though, the best action movies are the more intimate affairs that pit talented fighters and performers against each other in beautifully choreographed and wickedly executed fight scenes. It’s a relatively small playing field consisting mostly of Asian talents brought up in film cultures that value athleticism, dedication, and fighting ability, but some westerners have broken ranks to stand (and kick) by their side. Chief among them, and one of today’s absolute best action stars, is Scott Adkins.
Director/co-writer Jesse V. Johnson first joined forces with Adkins for 2017’s Savage Dog, and the pair haven’t stopped collaborating since. Accident Man (2018), The Debt Collector (2018), and Triple Threat (2019) followed, and while each have their strengths it’s their latest film, Avengement, that shows both talents at the top of their respective games. It’s a fast and brutal tale of revenge that pairs its violence with heart and pathos. Action sequences deliver blistering fun, and Adkins gets to shine with both his fists and his acting chops.
Cain Burgess (Adkins) is a convict with a grimace as mean-looking as the scars and burns that share space on his face, but he softens briefly when he arrives at the hospital under heavy guard to visit his dying mother. Unfortunately for him — and as it turns out, for a whole bunch of other people — he’s mere minutes too late. She’s dead, he’s pissed, and he decides to take this opportunity to escape custody and dole out some long overdue revenge on the people who filled his last seven years with violence, pain, and savagery. From a dirty cop to his very own brother, it’s going to be a long and bloody weekend.
Avengement is contained for most of its running time as Cain enters a bar early on and forcibly shares his backstory with both viewers and patrons alike. The flashbacks send us back to action beats in prison and in the hours since his escape, and it’s here where the narrative is formed. The script (co-written by frequent Adkins/Johnson collaborator Stu Small) doles the story out piecemeal, and it works to draw viewers into Cain’s predicament. He was a good guy before a single poor decision altered his life for the worse, landed him in jail, and marked him for death. Attempts on Cain’s life forced his hand, and the harder he fought to stay alive the longer his sentence was extended. You can understand the guy’s frustration.
The present is where the uncertainty rests, though, as he holds an increasingly irritated group of thugs hostage while waiting for his brother Lincoln (Craig Fairbrass) to arrive. The flashback skirmishes were just warm-ups for the film’s extended centerpiece as Cain eventually has to face-off against a dozen guys in the confines of the small pub. Bottles, bats, glasses, knives, and more all come into play, and it’s here where an already good action film becomes a great one.
Adkins and Johnson have only gotten better with each film when it comes to choreographing and executing their action sequences, and they deliver mightily here with some thrilling, bone-breaking violence. Johnson captures the fun head-on allowing the camera time to soak in hits, slams, and throws without giving viewers whiplash from fast cuts and stuntman stand-ins. Adkins does what he does best too which is showcase athleticism and a fighting style as reliant on speed as it is power. The guy is jacked and far faster than you’d expect muscles like his to be.
All of that’s already more than enough to make this an action standout for 2019, but the script and Adkins also deliver some unexpected emotion. He’s always been a more than competent actor, but his recent films — especially ones with Johnson like The Debt Collector and Accident Man — have shown him ratcheting up the performance and infusing it with humor, personality, and sentiment. Cain’s pain, both physical and emotional, come through in Adkins’ performance giving the film and character something of a tragic arc. It’s fun and lively, but it doesn’t neglect the heart at its core involving desperate choices and ruined lives.
Avengement is a terrifically entertaining action picture that will leave you happy these two talents found each other in their prime. It’s thrilling, satisfying, and even features a stellar main theme (by Sean Murray) that wouldn’t feel out of place in a spaghetti western. Action fans should seek it out sooner rather than later.