Reigning DTV Action King Isaac Florentine Takes A Turn For The Earnest
I go out of my way to watch Isaac Florentine films. The maestro behind the Undisputed sequels who more or less discovered and amplified the career of Scott Adkins, Florentine appears to be the living spirit of Golan & Globus’ Cannon Films. (Only in this embodiment Cannon Films is a genuinely nice guy and formidable karate expert himself). Florentine makes some legitimately great action films amidst the limitations and constraints of today’s modern direct to video market. He’s part of a group of artists and career filmmakers who are hungry to prove themselves through this medium and who take each opportunity they get and attempt to elevate the art form of the direct to video genre film.
So highly do I esteem Isaac Florentine, that I was personally saddened to hear that his wife had recently passed away after battling illness. Sure, he’s an entertainer creating a product for his fans to enjoy. But his work means so much to me that I tend to appreciate him on a human level, and genuinely felt for he and his family amid their loss. And you better believe I was fascinated to hear about his most recent project, Acts Of Vengeance, dedicated to his wife Barbara. In the film, Antonio Banderas’ silver-tongued and perpetually distracted defense lawyer Frank Valera takes a vow of silence and trains as a vigilante in order to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughter.
Acts of Vengeance is the kind of film where the hero reads books and takes certain quotes and implements them into his martial arts training regimen. It’s a book-action film? The story is broken into chapters accompanied by quotes from Marcus Aurelius, and the camera often dramatically zooms onto a page to reveal a sick quote. The page might even be blood-spattered. No joke. But while Antonio Banderas definitely trained for this film, did a bunch of his own fight and stunt work, and convincingly becomes a pretty badass Dad-action hero, Acts Of Vengeance really isn’t an outright action movie.
Taking a decidedly earnest tone, the film wears its heart on its sleeve and one can’t ignore the previous career of Florentine or the recent loss of his wife when experiencing it. It’s a marrying of the tough guy mindset of action cinema with a journey of grief and philosophical change. Now, don’t let me get to sounding too deep here, because there’s very little moral complexity going on here. What there is, however, is a unique spin on the well-trodden vigilante justice formula, executed by one of the best in the DTV business.
Valera taking a vow of silence makes for some interesting challenges as the film is forced to silence its star and the biggest marquee name on the project. Formerly (and superiorly) entitled Stoic, this is a film that’s more or less about Banderas becoming a warrior monk and solving the murders of his wife and child. The solving of the mystery is so telegraphed as to be almost humorous, so there’s little tension there. You can look at the cover of the Blu-ray and figure out who the killer is. But the journey to get there is more interesting than lots of more straight up revenge cinema. The conclusion to the final battle (which is wonderfully captured by Florentine and his eye for action) is surprising, however, and reflects a more spiritually enlightened take on the revenge narrative.
All this said, you do come here for the action. And it’s sparing here. The film does that thing where it kicks off in Act IV or so, just to give you a sweet taste of the mute-hyper-aware-revenge-ninja that Banderas is going to become, and then does an almost literal stop, record-scratch, “You’re probably wondering how I got here” deal, before settling into a more traditional linear narrative. Movies in this market need to give you that action up front, I guess, but it felt pretty blatant. Also Banderas ends up narrating a lot of the film for his silent character. With that being the case, the audience doesn’t quite experience the silence that Valera is benefitting from and being changed by. It would have been cool if the film could have pulled off a real deafening sense of silence while watching it.
Eventually Valera does become an almost Force-sensitive mute fighter, and all that stuff is pretty satisfying. Perhaps the most fun the movie has is with a German Shepard who is initially supposed to attack Valera and who becomes aware of Frank’s spiritual power through his silence. Unwilling to attack him, this dog ultimately adopts Valera and helps him solve the murders. It’s incredibly endearing and gets at the power of a non-verbal relationship better than anything else in the film. (And I’m not even a dog person).
Throw in literally one scene with Robert Forster, and several scenes with Karl Urban and Paz Vega, and Acts Of Vengeance doesn’t quite rise above its DTV trappings, but certainly does an estimable job of taking you on a satisfying journey. Go in expecting more crime drama than flying spin kicks, and you may enjoy yourself.
I tend to value earnestness, and enjoyed watching one of my favorite action filmmakers continue on with his work even after a personal tragedy and choose to address and wrestle with that loss in the film he’s sharing with us. While the spiritual insights may not be as nuanced as, say, the emotional catharsis of 2017 prison therapy documentary The Work, they’re heartfelt and higher minded than most anything else you’ll find on the DTV playing field.
There’s a bonus feature. It’s nice. You also get a Digital HD code for the film. Since this title got no real theatrical release, VOD or Blu-ray are really the only way you’ll be able to see it. Buying the disc gets you a bonus feature and a physical copy, but there’s not much more to the package. Seek this movie out if you’re a diehard Isaac Florentine fan like I am, but VOD is probably just as satisfying as Blu-ray.
And I’m Out.
Acts Of Vengeance is now available from Lionsgate Home Video