You may know Jesse V. Johnson as the director of such Scott Adkins films as SAVAGE DOG, ACCIDENT MAN, THE DEBT COLLECTOR, TRIPLE THREAT, AVENGEMENT and DEBT COLLECTORS. If not, you ought to. Johnson has become well regarded in our circles for his always good, often great movies with Adkins, but it’s not like he’s helpless without him. The latest and best evidence of that is HELL HATH NO FURY, a scorching little WWII thriller released this week on VOD. It’s not a high flying action movie like he’d do with Adkins, but don’t worry, it’s not trying to do SAVING PRIVATE RYAN at bargain prices either. Within a pretty simple standoff scenario, in a contained location and time frame, it finds great tension, some nasty violence and more substance than I ever would’ve expected.
It stars Nina Bergman (ASSASSIN X, THE BEAUTIFUL ONES) as Marie Dujardin, a French woman of uncertain character. We first meet her in the back of a car with SS officer Von Bruckner (Daniel Bernhardt, ATOMIC BLONDE, NOBODY, SKYLIN3S), seeming to enjoy herself before the car is ambushed by French resistance fighters. Three years later, as the Nazis are leaving town, a mob of locals brand Marie a collaborator, shave her head and plan who knows what for her before some American GIs rescue her.
They don’t really give a shit about her, except that she tells them she can lead them to a stash of Nazi gold hidden in the grave of General Von Bruckner. Louis Mandylor, who Johnson elevated to “holy shit, who is this guy?” status with THE DEBT COLLECTOR, plays Major Maitland, and I’m afraid IMDb isn’t helping me with the other character names, but he and a guy played by Timothy V. Murphy (PIT FIGHTER, APPALOOSA, ROAD TO PALOMA) and a couple others hold Marie at gunpoint and dig up various graves as she claims not to remember which one the gold is in. Meanwhile, PFC Vic (Josef Cannon, ROCKULA, DEBT COLLECTORS) keeps watch of the cemetery’s caretaker or whatever (Charles Fathy, voice of Jacques Chirac in W.).
Vic admits he’s ashamed of what they’re doing, claims that Maitland is a good dude who’s kinda losing it after so much fighting, but will not vouch for the other assholes. There’s a nice human moment where he tries to bond by talking about American things this Frenchman might’ve heard of. He does seem aware of Louis Armstrong, though the conversation seems to confuse him more than win him over.
But he’s nervous because he’s hiding something – this is some kind of resistance hideout, and shit goes south when his brother (Dominiquie Vandenberg, BARB WIRE) sneaks up on Vic and kills him. If you don’t know about Vandenberg, he’s a Belgian martial artist, former French Foreign Legion elite paratrooper, and fight coordinator of GANGS OF NEW YORK. He’s worked with Johnson since the beginning of his directing career and although his scary eyes make him perfect for bad guy henchman roles, he was the protagonist of Johnson’s solid 2019 film THE MERCENARY. This one doesn’t use his martial arts, but it’s an impressive breakthrough for his acting. Usually they play up his menacing look and give him a leather jacket or something, here they make him look regular, growing his hair out to show his bald spot, and he plays rather pathetic – infatuated with Marie and reckless in his desperation to be the one to help her.
He’s later referred to as a “French badger,” I think because he’s crawling around in dirt tunnels under the graves, but it describes his appearance pretty well too. I liked this doofus even though I agreed with his brother hectoring him. It’s a legit acting performance by Vandenberg and I think anybody unfamiliar with him would be shocked to watch this and then check him out in any other movie.
So we’ve got a delicate situation here: Marie may or may not know where the gold is, and may or may not be planning something. The French Badger may or may not try to kill the Americans. The Americans may or may not get impatient with Marie’s shenanigans and just shoot her. Then Maitland finds out a fleeing Nazi regiment is headed in this direction, which may or may not be a coincidence. Marie is in most respects the coolest of these characters, seeming somewhat in charge even while tied up, her head badly shaven, and stripped down to a slip, but are we sure she’s not a fucking Nazi? Or at least fucking a Nazi? The relevant information re: What Her Deal Is comes a piece at a time. So basically they’re walking around on a barely frozen lake with a bunch of landmines under it, and any wrong step could set it all off.
I’ve tried to be vague here because I think the way this story reveals itself and leaves you hanging in certain ways is a big part of what I loved about it, and I don’t want to ruin that experience for you. But hopefully it’s clear by now if you want to see the movie, so I’m gonna ask you to come back and read the rest after watching it. I am now switching over to BIG SPOILER MODE, discussing exactly what happens so I can try to get at what I really love about it.
I’ve been a little disheartened lately. I love the action genre, including some movies with messages ranging from questionable to reprehensible. But have I dedicated my life to a genre that wouldn’t piss on me if I as on fire? How long can I Iaugh off the silliness of certain action tropes while they seem to be accepted as reality by the people I feel are dragging my country into a dystopian nightmare? The anti-anti-fascists who fetishize guns and military gear and celebrate any cop or even vigilante who executes people in the streets. They believe that the DEATH WISH movies are accurate portrayals of urban living, that Dirty Harry is always right except when he learns a lesson at the end or opposes the Magnum Force, that RAMBO: LAST BLOOD and SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO have important points to add to the immigration discussion, and that DREDD is a story about a cop who performs his very good and necessary duties for the betterment of society and has no reason for regrets at the end of the day. (I don’t blame the movie for that last one, but it’s a real life example. A DREDD meme was a last straw that ended a friendship.)
I guess this stuff gets under my skin more than it used to partly because I bruised my soul trying in good faith to write for that one websight that told me they weren’t only for right wingers but I quit after they published some foul shit and they closed down anyway after an expose of how they dealt with sexual harassment on their movie sets and then the owner wrote what I took to be a sincere apology and pledge to do better but instead did a full heel turn teaming up with a despicable propagandist to make culture war trollsploitation movies with transphobes and manslaughterers. After a mistake like that I have to spend more time wondering if I’m part of the problem.
So it’s harder these days for me to brush off the same old stereotypes, copaganda and military fetishism popping up in new movies. And it’s not unheard of for somebody whose work I enjoy to suddenly start showing fascist colors. So the way HELL HATH NO FURY left us wondering where Marie’s sympathies lie – specifically, wondering if she was actually in love with a god damn SS officer! – it really had me nervous. Like, pit in the stomach nervous. We have reason to hope she’s really with the resistance, but we don’t know what she’s up to until more than halfway through the movie. It really seemed possible it could be a “she was just someone who fell in love, she didn’t do anything, and look how bad they’re treating her!” type of story.
You could do that without it being full-on both-sides-ism. It is absolutely possible and good to tell stories about bad people that show sympathy for them as human beings. I like that about stories. But I might be suspicious of the person telling that story. I got a problem with the people who are real concerned about possible over-correction but not at all about correcting in the first place. The people who would defend the KKK’s freedom of speech to the death but if it comes to defending somebody from the KKK they gotta be somewhere else that day. You know what I mean? So do I want to see the sympathy-for-Nazi-girlfriends movie in 2021? Fuck no. But do I mind having to dread that possibility for half of this movie? Also fuck no, considering the pay off.
What I was fearing was amorality masquerading as a denunciation of moral absolutism. In fact Marie turns out to have a higher morality than just the anti-Nazi one I was hoping for. Yes, she’s fighting the Nazis, thank God, those guys are the worst. But she has no time for the lesser evils either. Both the resistance and the Americans call her a whore because she has to use sex to accomplish her mission. Or because she’s a woman. Men always rough her up, push her around, make comments, and never have her back when she needs them to. She’s on her own and doesn’t waste time hoping otherwise.
Mandylor and Murphy are great at playing these sweaty assholes with about 85% menace and 15% charm. They’re mostly villains, but there are things to like about them. In some version of this story Maitland would seem like the reasonable one, trying to make deals with everybody to split the gold instead of kill each other. And Murphy has a great human moment with Marie when he candidly answers her questions. He explains why he and Maitland are older than most soldiers (the kind of artistic license that wouldn’t even occur to me but some viewers would never let go of) and makes a self-deprecating comment. When they agree to a truce to fight the approaching Nazis it’s a thrill.
The touch that pushes this from good to great for me is that while all of them want the gold, Marie puts her foot down at anyone getting this treasure that came from, as she explains it, Jewish teeth and wedding rings and Menorahs. She tells Maitland that it’s “cursed,” and he says, “But I’m an American, Marie. We don’t believe in spirits. We don’t believe in no curses. We believe in gold.”
As viewers, if not in life, we do believe in gold. We know that greed is bad and we nod along with that lesson when it’s the moral at the end of a caper movie. But if everybody’s fighting over the gold we want the good guys to get the gold. We root for it in KELLY’S HEROES and in THREE KINGS and etc. So when Marie convinces us, late in the game, not to believe in gold, it’s transcendent.
Another last inning bit of brilliance in the script by Romain Serir (THE GIRL WITH TWO FACES) and Katharine Lee McEwan (SOLITARY) is when Von Bruckner tells Maitland that Marie only cares about her goal and will stab any man in the back to achieve it. He’s just trying to mess with their partnership, to try to make the Americans distrust her, and I don’t think he realizes that he actually is right; her goal is to keep anyone from getting the gold, and she will betray the Americans to achieve that. And then after she achieves it she literally stabs Von Bruckner in the back, just for good measure. (I was also convinced that bombers blowing up the gold was an acceptable outcome for her, and I might be tempted not to take her survival literally if we didn’t get that title card at the end.)
I was excited for a new JVJ joint, but I honestly wasn’t expecting it to take me on an emotional journey like this. It’s probly just me, but I swear to you I had goosebumps at the end. And it’s extra beautiful to see something like this coming strictly from the talents of the DTV action world. Johnson of course knew that his frequent collaborators Mandylor and Murphy would be perfect for these roles, and must’ve also known that Vandenberg had this side to him. But it’s his first time working with Bernhardt, a long haul, slow burn action icon, kinda like Johnson himself. Of course I want to see Bernhardt keep doing kicking roles, but I’m really impressed that his acting has gotten this good, something I would never have thought possible from BLOODSPORT II–IV.
When I saw the trailer I was amused to see him in the Nazi uniform, because something about him has often reminded me of Christophe Waltz, and this seemed like it could be his DTV INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Of course it would be laughable to try to remind us of an epic like that in such a low budget movie, and thankfully that’s not what this is. But tonally and thematically it does remind me a little bit of Paul Verhoeven’s BLACKBOOK. And like that movie it has a knock out performance by a lead actress I’d never heard of and now can’t wait to see more of. It turns out I actually had enjoyed some of Bergman’s work recently: she was a cool punk lady with a wrist-mounted blowtorch in THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE. Previous to this her biggest movie was DOOM: ANNIHILATION. Here in HELL HATH NO FURY she’s phenomenal in what seems like an extremely difficult part. She has to express many layers of emotion while hiding others, not to mention the grueling physical side of the role. I hope she will still get to play cool punk ladies with blowtorches, but more complicated ones.
This is not the kind of thing I primarily think of when I think of “action movies,” because it’s not so much about the grace of the movements, it’s just about violence. But man, there’s some good violence. Some nasty, chunky blood spurts and in particular a knife fight that had me wincing. (Action coordinated and choreographed by Luke LaFontaine, who has worked on Johnson’s movies going back to PIT FIGHTER and choreographed SAVAGE DOG, THE DEBT COLLECTOR and its sequel, among others.) And like some of the best war movies (or heroic bloodshed) it has those moments between characters as they know they’ve been mortally wounded and they’re deciding what to do with those last moments. There’s a heartbreaking scene where Murphy’s character is about done and Maitland tells him “maybe this will warm your heart,” that he called for backup. And I thought at first he meant they might be rescued, but it turns out all he’s saying is that if they don’t make it out of there, the whole place will be bombed. These guys who believe in gold, accepting mutually assured destruction as a happy ending.
Look, I know this is gonna be a harder sell than some of the shit I rave about, and it’s not gonna be for everybody. But if it sounds like your kind of thing, or if you dig Jesse V. Johnson in general, I’m telling you, check it out. It’s definitely one of my favorites of the year.
P.S. There’s a pretty good interview with Johnson about this movie on, uh, military.com.
“The script finally let me see something that represented that moment with a little more complexity than we’ve seen before. It’s not only the way the American troops view the Resistance, but by how the Resistance themselves think of the American troops. And there’s a lot of bitterness bordering on absolute malice. For the first third of the script, I didn’t know which character I was supposed to root for. I liked that, and I enjoy the journey that the story takes.”