How long can a vow of peace last in an action movie?
Jesse V. Johnson (Savage Dog, Accident Man, The Debt Collector) is one of those action filmmakers who has recently broken out from the pack so far that I had to go back and seek out as many of his films as I possibly could. He’s got decades in the business, and had worked primarily in stunts until breaking into directing, where he’s made quite a name for himself. I always like to champion those talents who come out of the action/stunt world and take the directing reins for themselves. And Johnson has more than proven himself at this point.
It’s not all bright points in his filmography, but what’s important about Johnson is that he appears to bring his A-game to every project and tries to bring a level of quality and control to his action sequences even when the budget or on-screen talent may not really be there to make up the difference. As much as I love his recent output, several of his earlier films aren’t going to turn many heads if you seek them out like I did. One early collaboration was with action professional and leading man Dominiquie Vandenberg called Pit Fighter (2005). It toyed with redemption, faith, and violence as themes. Vandenberg doesn’t quite have the look or acting chops to hold down the leading man role with confidence, but Johnson and Vandenberg do bring pretty solid action.
Which brings us to The Mercenary. Here, we’ve once again got this duo of director and star bringing us themes of redemptive violence and religion all mixed up into a quiet little action film. And you know what? It works a lot better this time than it did with Pit Fighter. What The Mercenary is not going to do is bring a whole lot to the table that you haven’t seen before. But what it is going to do is provide you with the thrills and set pieces you’re looking for in a film like this, and it’s going to play to its strengths in a major way.
Max (Vandenberg) is a bad man. He’s a soldier for hire, a killer, doing the bidding of an even worse man, Louis Mandylor’s LeClerc. But when he’s left for dead, discovered by a priest, and nursed back to health, he takes on a vow of peace and wonders what it might look like to pursue a life of faith. This is a time-tested action movie trope, the vow of peace. This literally isn’t even the only action movie I’ve watched this week that employs it. It’s always a humorous trope as the action genre would really never allow said vow to be honored. So it’s just a matter of time before the bad guys just push things too far and our hero brings the righteous bloodshed. But with a stripped down aesthetic, a Western heartbeat, and a soft-spoken (temporarily even mute) protagonist, The Mercenary brings a very James Mangold/Clint Eastwood vibe to proceedings that’s quite welcome. Vandenberg is great with on-screen action choreography, and the visual alone of this dude beating down bad guys in priestly robes and sandals is probably worth the price of admission. And while he’s still probably not the greatest actor, this is worked around as Max rarely speaks. He’s also come a long way since Pit Fighter.
Also in The Mercenary’s toolkit is frequent Johnson collaborator Louis Mandylor. He’s allowed to cut loose here as a despicable villain and while every other element of the film is muted and subdued, LeClerc is over the top and representative of Satan. I mean… the dude tempts Max back into the fold with a ridiculous banquet table filled with, like, lobster and turkey legs in the middle of the jungle. And then later he actually crucifies Max. (The ultimate in religious action symbolism). I’ve come to adore Mandylor’s presence in action films and he takes this to another level with a villain you can love to hate.
Most importantly, Vandenberg and Johnson bring their ace action skills to the table and provide some really strong hand-to-hand and gun battles. It’s what you come to a movie called The Mercenary for, and they get that part right. Even if the lower budget and shorter shoots allotted to films at this level can be detected. The Mercenary ultimately lands just on the right side of satisfying. You can tell passion and skill were poured into it, even if the end results don’t really bring a film that hugely stands out from the pack. If you’re a Jesse V. Johnson fan, I’d easily recommend checking this out.
And I’m Out.
The Mercenary is now available on DVD from Uncork’d Entertainment