When you have a checkered past, a new, idyllic life complete with a pregnant wife and newly minted hopes and dreams, and are a badass fighter, you know you’re utterly, absolutely screwed. Cinematically speaking of course. Such is the case for Samir (Nassim Lyes), the protagonist of Mayhem!, the latest violent offering from director Xavier Gens (The Divide, Gangs of London). Vicious and all kinds of mean, this offers up a dark, brutal slice of fantastic action for those so inclined.
We first meet Samir in France. He’s on parole when his past catches up with him in typically violent fashion. Fast forward five years, he’s fled to Thailand and turned over a new leaf. He works, splashes in the ocean with his pregnant wife, Mia (Loryn Nounay), and her daughter, Dara (Chananticha Chaipa), and generally keeps his head down. Sure, he dabbles in the fringes of the criminal underworld, mostly in the form of crooked Muay Thai fights, much to the chagrin of his coach/mentor, Hansa (the great Vithaya Pansringarm), but only to raise money to open a quaint little seaside restaurant. It’s too nice, too perfect, so of course it can’t last. Desperate circumstances push him to take a one-off job for a crime boss, which does not go well. He’s abandoned as a corpse, and left with only one direction forward, revenge.
If that sounds like a lot, it is, and the film takes its sweet time finding itself and getting moving—the revenge portion of the program, thus the primary thrust, doesn’t even pop up until almost the precise midpoint. It’s not even that the drama is entirely inert, it’s fine, but it’s never super compelling or engaging and it wastes too much time on slow motion sunset beach walks and the like. Fortunately, the film sprinkles in enough fights and momentary bits of action to keep things interesting.
The pace is uneven and all over the place, rushing when it should slow down, meandering when it should pick up, which creates a jerky tempo and the impression that the movie isn’t sure what story it truly wants to tell. (Is this about revenge? Redemption? The inescapable cyclical nature of the past? Child sex trafficking? As stated, there’s a lot going on.) And the script definitely tries some narrative gymnastics at the end that, damn, do not work.
None of this is a huge dealbreaker; it’s meh, but worth wading through for the good stuff. The good stuff being the aforementioned violence. For all the start and stop momentum, lukewarm melodrama, and other flaws, the key thing Mayhem! has going for it is the action. And boy howdy, does it get messy. Lyes cuts a fearsome figure when it comes to onscreen fisticuffs, both as a slick martial arts stylist and a wild, bone-snapping brawler.
Things get gnarly, and often, with elaborate, visceral fight choreography executed with both skill and severity. For his part, Gens is not a filmmaker who flinches at this sort of thing, which leads to plenty of raw, primal throwdowns. One particularly nasty fight near the climax is one of the gnarliest, bloodiest things you’re likely to see for a good long time. And it’s always welcome to see Pansringarm get in on the fun, which he does, with a sword.
If you can wade through moments where the plot drags and deal with some bland, though inoffensively bland drama, Mayhem! offers up abundant rewards for fans of badass movie martial arts and bloody cinematic violence. This is a hell of a way to kick off 2024. [Grade: B]