To give you an idea of the level of brutality in Avengement, the latest team-up from star Scott Adkins and director Jesse V. Johnson, at one point Adkins’ character, Cain Burgess, straight up bites out a dude’s jugular with a ferocious snarl. And no, this isn’t a vampire movie. This is a gritty, mean, down and dirty crime story about gritty, mean, down and dirty criminals. It’s also Johnson’s most ambitious film to date, as well as maybe his best.
Adkins stands in the upper echelon of current cinematic martial artists—he was a key part of the all-star lineup in Johnson’s last movie, the star-studded Triple Threat. While he has plenty of chance to flex his fighting muscles, and his muscle muscles, the violence, and there is plenty, is more of the raw, visceral variety than a showcase for flashy skills and technical aplomb. We’re talking bone breaking, curb stomping, prison napalm, rugged open wound violence. As steeled as I am in these matters, I had to look away a couple of times.
While Adkins will likely never be known as a master thespian, Avengement affords him the opportunity to go places he doesn’t usually visit. He plays Cain as a wild beast, his face covered in scars, his teeth knocked out and replaced with a vicious metal smile set in a permanent, terrifying sneer. At times, it borders on over the top and threatens to boil over into hammy territory, but he reins it in, burning with rage and hate. But below that, there’s a melancholy pain, a dejection and disappointment at being betrayed by a loved one.
Cain wasn’t always like this. When his story begins, he’s generally a good guy, trying to do right, even though he has a temper. But when he goes down for his loan shark brother, Lincoln (Craig Fairbrass, Cliffhanger, Hijacked), he winds up a target in Britain’s filthiest, most violent prison. In order to survive, he hones his body and mind into weapon, sharpening himself into a “hardened, rusty nail.” (He does have a dope, Bronson-esque prison workout he could probably market when he gets out, but he keeps killing inmates and fighting guards, piling up additional years.) When he escapes, he sets out on a savage quest for revenge.
When I called Avengement Johnson’s most ambitious movie, I mean narratively. It’s not huge in scope or scale; in reality, it’s fairly contained. He co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator Stu Small (Accident Man, The Debt Collector) and it’s essentially non-linear story time with Scott Adkins. We don’t meet Cain until he’s a grizzled, gnarled convict. But when he escapes, he traps a barroom full of Lincoln’s goons, and while he waits for his brother, he tells his tale. Even then, it’s not a straight-forward, point-A-to-point-B path. He jumps around in time, from prison to before and back through the years. The story loops around, revealing what we need to know, when we need to know it, developing the themes, plot, and character It may not entirely blow your doors off with originality, but it’s a clever strategy executed well, and it shows growth and development as a storyteller.
Though this certainly falls into the wheelhouse for both Scott Adkins and Jesse V. Johnson, and isn’t uncharted territory for either, Avengement also represents a progression. Together they create a low-down prison exploitation saga with artistic flourishes. They craft a nuanced character and a revenge story with more emotional complications and pathos than this type of movie typically carries. Maybe it’s not a progression, maybe that’s the wrong word, but as the reigning heavyweight kinds of DTV action, Avengement sees both men working at the top of their game, and they’re only getting better.