THE MERCENARY is what they’re calling the new one from director Jesse V. Johnson, though it’s just MERCENARY on screen, and was developed under the less generic (if goofy) title LEGION MAXX. Johnson, of course, has been on a hot streak for several years, with movies including ACCIDENT MAN, THE DEBT COLLECTOR and AVENGEMENT. This is his first in a while to not have Scott Adkins in it – instead it’s a vehicle for his lesser known but even-longer-time collaborator, Dominiquie Vandenberg. The Belgian martial artist met Johnson working on MORTAL KOMBAT, and starred in his first shorts Death Row the Tournament and The Doorman, then his first features THE HONORABLE and PIT FIGHTER, and has since shown up in ALIEN AGENT, THE HITMEN DIARIES: CHARLIE VALENTINE, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS 2, THE BUTCHER and TRIPLE THREAT. He can also be seen in Yuen Woo-Ping’s TRUE LEGEND, but maybe his greatest claim to fame is training Leonardo DiCaprio for knife-fighting in GANGS OF NEW YORK and then becoming fight coordinator and appearing as a gang member.
And that’s the kind of role he seems made for – brief appearances of a scary guy the hero has to fight off. I mean, look at his head shot here – you don’t expect that guy to be the hero. You expect him to try to mug the hero, or shank him in prison after he gets set up. He’s bald and bearded with cold eyes, a bit like a fit Eddie Marsan. And his proportions are very compact, which I think gives his swings a distinct fast and blunt sort of style compared to more traditionally long-limbed fighters.
All that makes him an unusual leading man and a good fit for a classical story about an amoral man of violence finding a new calling. I was nervous during the first few scenes – other than a higher-than-average amount of blood spray (throats slit and sounding like a sprinkler), the opening scenes of Vandenberg’s character Maxx on missions with his mercenary crew seem pretty close to the generic military porn promised by the title and cover. They creep through the woods in their body armor and face paint, team leader LeClerc (Louis Mandylor, an exciting face to see ever since THE DEBT COLLECTOR, speaking in an Australian accent that may or may not be his real one) does lots of fancy hand signals, Maxx does some martial arts and some knife fighting but mostly they just fire lots of bullets.
A few of his teammates get little character moments, but the only woman, Magpie (Alina Andrei, BARE KNUCKLES) stands out the most. Others are interchangeable yahoos, which leads to the crucial incident when Maxx spares the life of a worker at a Colombian drug plant only to see another guy chase her and try to rape her. Maxx rescues her, but gets his throat slit in the process and is left for dead.
When he wakes up he’s in a small church run by kindly Father Elias (Carmen Argenziano, SUDDEN IMPACT, RED SCORPION, BROKEN ARROW, HELLRAISER: INFERNO), who tells him he nearly died of a blood infection, asks him to sweep the church to pay off the antibiotics they gave him, then convinces him to stay and help out in exchange for food and shelter. He cleans up, chops wood and passes out Bibles, but Father Elias’s apprentice Father Thiago (Manny Alva) thinks he’s scaring parishioners, so they give him a robe that, combined with his throat bandage, makes him look like a priest.
But this is cartel land, so pretty soon some bad guys are snooping around, and though Maxx goes out of his way to avoid violence, he eventually, inevitably has to beat some ass. He seems ashamed of his actions, but they go over pretty well with the congregation, and they get him to give a few self defense lessons. Unsurprisingly, we find out that his old friend LeClerc is working with the cartels, and when he finds out Maxx is alive he and his men start coming around the church trying to ruin his chance for a peaceful life.
Though MERCENARY lacks the humor of some of the recent Johnson joints, it’s another compelling story with a little more personality and character than the DTV/VOD market requires. Argenziano is very good as Father Elias, and he seems sincere in both his philosophy of non-violence and his later, less orthodox conclusion that Maxx was put here to use his warrior abilities to help people. And Mandylor makes for a good villain. He really likes Maxx and wants to welcome him back to the team, but won’t accept that he doesn’t believe in it anymore. Still, Maxx sits down at a table with him and tries to work it out.
The character is wisely designed to not talk much. For a bit it even seems like he’s lost the ability to speak. I like his wordless interactions with people. And the priest robe is a great idea – it visually underlines the theme of the character, and is a good juxtaposition with his bad-guy face, but also just flows cool in fights, resembling something that could be in a period kung fu movie. He oughta be wearing it on the cover to give an idea of what the movie’s like, but you know it is. They don’t think audiences want to see something that looks a tiny bit different. They think we only want to see more tactical gear and keffiyeh scarves and some fire in the background. I’m surprised they didn’t throw in a couple helicopters.
This one is much more story driven than action driven, but the shit hits the fan at the end. The choreographer is Malay Kim (fight coordinator of FEMALE FIGHT SQUAD) and the stunt coordinator is Luke LaFontaine (a stuntman from Martial Law, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Power Rangers who has been stunt or fight coordinator for most of Johnson’s movies).
The other JVJ movie this reminds me of the most is SAVAGE DOG. The storytelling is a little cleaner but it’s similar in that it’s very serious, it’s surprisingly brutal (he takes a bite out of a guy, and he gets nailed to a cross!), and it ends up feeling like an origin story for a guy you want to see having more adventures. At the end he hits the road, surely to travel from town to town helping people with Father Elias style kindness plus righteous asskicking.
Though there’s little original about the ideas here, it feels like everyone’s heart is in it, and sure enough it’s sort of a passion project for Vandenberg. According to an interview with Mike Leeder on on Screenanarchy, the actor has been trying to get this made for the better part of a decade, originally through the “introduce the character in a comic book” method. He says it’s partly inspired by his own experiences, having been in the French Foreign Legion and then worked as a mercenary. He’s also the kind of guy who claims samurai philosopher Miyamoto Musashi as his childhood hero and says things like “I felt as if possessed by the demon spirit of some long dead warrior” and “I have Karma debts to pay and want to live a positive-thinking good life.” So he seems pretty intense.
And he confirms that he wants this to be a series. In his sequel script, “Maxx is in Chechnya working at an orphanage when terrorist come and take the kids and women as slaves and killing the kids with special needs.” Yep, that sounds like the kind of sequel we want. Let’s hope the undistinguished title and cover don’t prevent us from getting it.