The Scott Adkins & Jesse V. Johnson Collaboration Hits New Heights
I became aware of The Debt Collector’s writer/director Jesse V. Johnson through my rabid Scott Adkins fandom. Now, after Adkins/Johnson collaborations Savage Dog, Accident Man, and The Debt Collector in just a short 2 years, I have fully boarded the Jesse V. Johnson train, loaded up my Netflix queue with half a dozen of his previous directorial works, and am ready to sing the man’s praises all over this land. With decades of experience as a stuntman, Johnson came up the hard way and earned his stripes. Now with 50 stunt credits, 10 writing credits, and 17 directing credits to his IMDb profile, it’s time for Jesse V. Johnson to be a household name, especially among action aficionados.
What Adkins and Johnson have going with this rapid fire collaboration is something truly special, as together they seem to be elevating one anothers’ craft and utilizing one anothers’ skill sets in a spectacular way. Both are able to stretch themselves and push their agendas to make films that far exceed the standard expectations of the DTV action genre they are a part of. While with Accident Man Scott Adkins was able to write, produce, and star, Johnson was able to both write and direct Savage Dog and The Debt Collector. And while I enjoyed all three of those films immensely, it actually does feel like each of the three got progressively better than the last, leaving one quite excited about the future prospects of this collaboration.
The Debt Collector finds Adkins starring in a genuine buddy film, sharing the spotlight with co-star Louis Mandylor (also a mainstay in DTV action cinema, and who turns in his absolute best work here). They play French and Sue, respectively, with French being the new guy on the debt collection beat (struggling to pay the bills on his dojo… classic), and Sue being the drunk and washed up pro who’s been low level enforcing for decades. Ahhh, did you hear that? “Low level”. It’s impossible to stress how refreshing it is that The Debt Collector takes us deep into a sleazy world where the stakes may be high for our characters, but nothing earth shattering is going down. This isn’t some massive scale alien invasion, but rather an intimate tale about a few two bit hoods; and in those scenarios, character counts.
Most DTV action films aren’t created for the big screen, and likely wouldn’t thrive as a wide release. Times have simply changed. If you ask me, though, The Debt Collector would have fit right into a big screen wide release. Straight off the bat the camera work is skilled and the script (co-written by Johnson and Accident Man co-writer Stu Small) crackles with one-liners and insults that feel right at home among Shane Black-style buddy action comedies. Adkins gets to use his British accent as French and between that and his growing comfort with Johnson as director, he gives his absolute best and most loose performance as an actor thus far in his career. Yuri Boyka of the Undisputed franchise probably remains the character Adkins was born to play, but French is his most fully realized and fantastically showcases his physical abilities and stretches his comic and dramatic potential as well. Mandylor is somewhat of a revelation as Sue, taking French under his wing with a steady stream of verbal abuse, but slowly revealing a shell of a soul still underneath the drunken exterior.
Taking place over a single weekend, French gets financially desperate enough to tap an underworld connection he has in “Mad Alex” (Streets Of Fire’s Michael Pare), a student at his dojo and himself a part of Tommy’s (Vladimir Kulich) debt collection operation. Tommy pairs French with Sue, and they’re off together on their first day. The low stakes action sequences in the earlier part of the film are great fun, allowing the leads to establish a system for their shakedowns, give Adkins a showcase for his incredible physical skill, and cement the character dynamic between our leads. As the weekend progresses, stakes become higher as Tommy sends French and Sue on a job for notorious crime boss Barbosa (The Candyman himself, Tony Todd). You just know things are going to go south with Barbosa, but the hows and whys are all surprising and escalate to a remarkably gritty and even emotional climax that can only be achieved through strong writing, performances, and direction in a character-based film such as this one.
I adore The Debt Collector. It nails the sleazy underground world of Los Angeles, looks fantastic (far better than most films of this type), and perhaps most importantly achieves what it sets out for both as a buddy comedy and as a throwback to gritty 1970s crime films. The script is propulsive, the stakes ever deepening, and it never skimps on action even as it does the hard work of fleshing out and developing our characters. Adkins and Mandylor have remarkable chemistry and manage to make a real connection between their characters that changes both of their fates in the course of one weekend. And while I’ll spoil nothing about the barn-burner of an ending, it’s a risky and refreshing conclusion that honors its 1970s roots and takes chances that you’d absolutely never see in the latest four quadrant Hollywood blockbuster. Action fans should rush to see The Debt Collector at their first possible opportunity. It’s not a grand, sweeping narrative, and it’s all the better for it. Get in the Cadillac (but watch the whitewalls) with French and Sue, take a ride with them, and you’ll find an absolutely top tier crime/action/comedy/drama that’ll leave no bone unbroken.
And I’m Out.
The Debt Collector hits DVD and Digital June 5th from Archstone Distribution via Sony Pictures Home Entertainment