SEIZED is the long-awaited new one from DTV superteam Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine. Though lately Adkins has formed a strong actor/director partnership with Jesse V. Johnson, it was Florentine who first gave him a showcase in SPECIAL FORCES and then made him an icon with UNDISPUTED II and III, plus NINJA and NINJA II: SHADOW OF A TEAR. This is their first reteam in at least four years – I have my suspicions about 2016’s excellent BOYKA: UNDISPUTED (credited to another director), but officially Florentine’s last time directing Adkins was 2015’s CLOSE RANGE.
This one is closer to the latter – another story about a guy single-handedly taking on cartels to protect his family. This time it’s more like a Hollywood thriller, more emphasis on the high concept and complex action sequences than martial arts. He’s kind of a JOHN WICK, settled down as a widower raising his teenage son Taylor (Matthew Garbacz) and running a cyber security firm from a beautiful home in Mexico, when his secret past as an infamous CIA and/or MI5 commando called “Nero” comes roaring back.
Instead of a revenge movie it’s more of a 12 ROUNDS type forced-to-do-a-thing-by-criminal-mastermind story. Several minutes in, just when you’re wondering how much of a Scott Adkins movie can be about him being upset about his son getting into fights at school, he gets hit with a dart, passes out, wakes up and cartel boss Mzamo (Mario Van Peebles, PANTHER, POSSE, JAWS: THE REVENGE) is on the phone giving him instructions on how to get his son back. It involves going to particular places to kill particular people using the suitcase of guns, kevlar vest and bullet proof SUV they left him.
The vest has a bodycam on it so that Mzamo can sit back and enjoy the violence. He’s like a rich guy hosting a Super Bowl party, his delighted Mexican henchmen and a group of nervous-seeming Brits watching it go down on a TV. There’s an open bar, he’s got a big bowl of popcorn, they’re cheering and celebrating each death.
There’s a high volume of action (coordinated by Larnell Stovall and choreographed by HALF PAST DEAD 2 director Art Camacho), all really well done. Lots of running into places, ducking and dodging and shooting, as well as JOHN WICK-inspired, but arguably Seagal-esque sequences running through a strip club, plowing through guy after guy, one or two or three at a time, a couple kicks here, a couple shots, a twisted arm, a bottle to the face, a plate over a head. There’s a great scene where he literally beats some guys up with his hands tied behind his back. You get some of those great moves (he ducks a punch, grabs the guy, body slams him onto a counter, hammers his head back with a kick) and details (seeing an opponent’s footwork, he switches his stance) that you hope for in a Florentine film, and at least one of those Power Rangers style whoosh sound effects.
This is Adkins in standard action hero mode, but I think informed by his more dialogue-heavy work with Johnson. But it’s not funny dialogue like in ACCIDENT MAN or DEBT COLLECTOR 1 and 2, aside from some bitter sarcasm, like when he’s being forced to massacre a restaurant full of gangsters and says, “Be back in a minute.”
There’s a good exchange that I took for this type of grim humor: Mzamo tells him not to worry about his son, who is locked in what he described as a “gas chamber,” because he’ll bring him a peanut butter sandwich. Nero tells him to be sure to cut the crust off. I thought they were both being smartasses, but a little later Mzamo in fact cuts the crust off a sandwich, brings it to Taylor and describes it as “no crusties”! He sits down, tells him “Sorry to interupt your life like this.” Taylor doesn’t accept the sandwich or the apology, but it’s the kind of unexpected touch I love these movies for, because it’s not the expected villain-being-fake-nice-in-order-to-be-menacing – he seems to mean it, for whatever that’s worth.
I like villains with layers. Also of note: the part where he thinks Nero has been killed, so he makes a little speech about why “he deserves our respect” and leads his crew in a sincere round of applause.
The lead villain is the area where I think SEIZED is a definite improvement over CLOSE RANGE. Though Van Peebles does a little fighting, it’s another case where you know it can’t be building to a big martial arts climax. But the character is interesting enough, and the performance is fun enough, that it doesn’t matter. Strutting around in rodeo attire, Van Peebles plays the character as Mexican, in the tradition of when he played Chinese in HIGHLANDER: THE FINAL DIMENSION. That mostly means he says “Vamanos!” a bunch and calls Nero “Papa,” but it’s quite clear that he is not considered an outsider. Nobody blinks when he talks about “our people” against “the gringos.”
He uses the Brits as stand-ins for Americans, flipping Trump quotes against the “gringos,” including the infamous “they’re not sending their best” line. He says he’s going to “Make the cartels great again. And make them pay for it.” But he takes pride in keeping his word, is against sex trafficking, and wants to put his resources into schools, universities and “clean fuels,” so he’s not very Trumpian.
I didn’t realize Mzamo’s wife Alanza (Karlee Perez, MAPPLETHORPE) was played by a WWE wrestler, so I was surprised by the subtle respect the movie shows for her minor character, for example cutting to her face after they all learn that someone they’re working with had Nero’s wife killed. (Fans expecting a showcase might wish for more of her, though.)
There are some themes here about violence and people who reap its benefits while being distanced from it. Mzamo and his crew watch Nero’s killings like entertainment. When Nero confesses his former profession to his son he compares it to “your video games.” Mzamo tells him to “Get your ass in there and play Call of Duty on the motherfuckers.” His feed from the bodycam looks like a first person shooter; our view often looks like a game too, usually following behind him, often looking over his shoulder.
But when one of the cartels gets the drop on Nero, Mzamo goes into rolling-up-the-sleeves t.c.b. mode and does try to handle it himself, his wife choosing to get her hands dirty as well. The one cartel boss who’s able to get the drop on Nero is the one who chooses to pick up a gun himself. (A fancy looking one he keeps on his Virgin Mary shrine.)
Not by accident, the guy we’re asked to hate most, the one willing to murder a kid, tries to do it from the other side of a wall, through a pipe, with carbon monoxide. By contrast, Mzamo not only objects to killing Taylor, but worries about him having to see all the dead bodies laying around. The whole story is leading up to a corny “you see, son…” knowing-is-half-the-battle moral about violence, but I kind of like that.
For my tastes, SEIZED is low in the rankings of Florentine-Adkins joints. Boyka is obviously a more unusual and interesting protagonist than Commando Dad here, and I miss those bone crunching, high flying martial arts duels they’re so good at staging and shooting. I hope we’ll get to see more movies like that soon. But taken on its own terms this is a solid, effective thriller with loads of good action and bits of personality in unexpected places.