DEBT COLLECTORS comes to V.O.D. tomorrow, May 29, and to DVD June 2nd. This review has mild spoilers (including my favorite line) if you want to hold off until you’ve seen it.
Friends, the Scott Adkins/Jesse V. Johnson streak continues to continue. In just four years the martial arts star and director have collaborated on SAVAGE DOG, ACCIDENT MAN, THE DEBT COLLECTOR, TRIPLE THREAT, AVENGEMENT, and now DEBT COLLECTORS, a very welcome plural sequel to their singularly titled criminal-lowlifes-on-the-outskirts-of-L.A. buddy movie. Like the first one it’s written by Johnson and Stu Small (ACCIDENT MAN).
I loved THE DEBT COLLECTOR and thought it was a shame they got shot up at the end since I would have loved to see those characters have more misadventures. Honestly even if it had ended with them alive and a TO BE CONTINUED I wouldn’t have taken it for granted that they’d be able to make another one. So I’m thankful. If you need to know how the story continues, it’s pretty much the 3 FROM HELL approach: yes, they got shot, isn’t it amazing they survived? One in a million.
But being alive means they’re still in trouble with bad people. And in the case of Sue (Louis Mandylor [BARE KNUCKLES], whose funny and melancholic performance as an honorable fuckup was the first film’s biggest surprise) it’s a time to rethink some things. He doesn’t drink anymore, and he’s sworn off violence. Or so he says. So every time things don’t work out peacefully French (Adkins) gets to give him shit about it.
We’re reintroduced to French working for bar owner Nils Allen Stewart (THE JESSE VENTURA STORY), who wants him to somehow do security without beating people up. Needless to say that doesn’t work out. But Sue shows up and buys French lunch so they can discuss how the fuck each other are alive and Sue can pitch him on one last job. Well, three last jobs, as French points out.
They’ve got three names of people who owe money to Tommy (Vladimir Kulich, THE 13TH WARRIOR). Number one is Mal Reese (Marina Sirtis, DEATH WISH 3, Star Trek: The Next Generation) – a reference to POINT BLANK, right? – a bigshot lady in Vegas who happens to be Sue’s ex and seems to terrify him. Number two is Esteban Madrid, (Cuete Yeska, DESTROYER), who runs a boxing gym. Number three is Cyrus (ROAD WARRIOR’s Wez himself, Vernon Wells), who owns a garage. In between the complications of each of these jobs they also have to deal with two menacing guys, Evo (Josef Cannon, INTERSTELLAR CIVIL WAR: SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE) and Darius (Jermaine Jacox, HUSTLE LIFE), who are tailing them in an SUV and won’t tell them who they work for. (French spots them at a gas station, walks right up to them and asks.)
Of course, they get into numerous punch ups and gun battles in the course of a few days of work. Like the first one (and SAVAGE DOG, and THE MERCENARY), the stunt coordinator is Luke LaFontaine. One of their more interesting opponents is Mal’s head of security Britt, played by Mayling Ng, who was most widely seen in WONDER WOMAN, but she was a particularly cool sort of Ivan Drago type in LADY BLOODFIGHT. It looks like next she’ll be playing the DC Comics villain Mongal in THE SUICIDE SQUAD – good for her.
The score by Sean Murray is really effective – there’s a theme over the opening scene and the climax that sounds like a spaghetti western, perfect for the character of Sue, who risks his life and puts his body through the wringer out of loyalty to his friends. Most of the time, though, the music is more of a bouncy David Holmes kind of style, which is fitting for the Elmore-Leonardy sort of feel. It’s these funny, violent little vignettes about encounters between criminals, most of them pretty low on the totem pole, all of them (including our heroes) likely to fuck things up by doing something stupid, overestimating themselves or underestimating the other guy. There’s alot of this in the great middle section where Sue and French have to get in the ring with Esteban’s various boxing contenders.
Many of my favorite parts are character moments, not action scenes. There’s a surprisingly long, and for me totally effective break in the story for the two to sit in a hotel room and talk about their near deaths. And I love the scene where the guys who have been following them recognize Sue from his ninja movie. French is surprised that somebody has seen it and especially that they like it. But Mr. #1 fan is impressed by the movie, not by Sue as he currently exists. He asks, “What the fuck happened to you?”
“Same thing that’s gonna happen to you boys,” Sue says. “It’s called life. It’s called life.”
It’s such a genuine moment, because it’s true of all the real life action stars – they become world famous when they’re young and in ridiculous shape, their physicality exaggerated, then eventually they wrinkle, they sag, they hunch over, either purely through age or also through poor choices or bad luck. And people have the nerve to wonder what the fuck happened to them.
Although Johnson has now made several world class vehicles for Adkins, who still looks young and incredible and is hard to picture aged, the director has also shown a great affinity for more weathered character actor veterans like Mandylor, Kulich and Wells in this one, or Michael Pare and Tony Todd in the first one, or even going back to early Johnson films like THE BUTCHER with Eric Roberts, Robert Davi, Keith David, Geoffrey Lewis and Michael Ironside. And he keeps dealing with this theme of people worrying they’re washed up or they never made it to the place in life they wanted to.
What’s truly special about this series is that it could absolutely work with just the chemistry of these characters and the conversations they have, yet it also has numerous well-crafted fight scenes. And the best part of the movie is both emotional and action – its the scene where SPOILER Sue and French have a brutal alley fight. They are both dead set on what needs to be done with this money and they respect each other and even bond while fighting but have no qualms about playing dirty to get what they want. I didn’t know who to root for and found it completely enthralling.
Looking forward to DEBT COLLECTOR3 and DEBT COLLECTOR: RESURRECTION.
P.S. An interesting thing about THE DEBT COLLECTOR that I don’t think is widely known is that Johnson based the character of Sue on Jerry Trimble, a.k.a. the proudly mulleted villain from Jet Li’s THE MASTER. I learned from one of Mike Fury’s great interviews that Trimble, who was in Johnson’s THE BUTCHER, THE LAST SENTINEL, CHARLIE VALENTINE, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS 2 and THE PACKAGE, worked as a debt collector and bouncer and told Johnson many anecdotes about it. So that’s why Sue is a former star of b-martial arts movies. Trimble would’ve played the role if not for scheduling conflicts – I hope he shows up as another character in a future sequel!