Chaos reigns in the intense new action flick Mayhem!, but things get off to a quiet start in this tale of an ex-con looking for a fresh beginning. Directed by Xavier Gens, known for delivering some gnarly thrills in Frontier(s) and Cold Skin, Mayhem! sees the French filmmaker team up with producer Gareth Evans, the boundary-pushing creative force behind The Raid films. They’ve crafted an emotionally grounded story that erupts into bone-crunching brutality, with the gritty action living up to the promise of the title – even if it takes its sweet time getting there.
Originally titled Farang, referring to the status of its protagonist Sam (played by real-life kickboxer Nassim Lyes) as a foreigner trying to make a home in Thailand, the name change to Mayhem! hints at the intensity in store. But while the bloody carnage doesn’t kick in until later, the slow build allows us to invest in Sam’s struggle before he goes all John Wick on the baddies. So strap in for a tense crime drama that mutates into a furious thrill ride, whether you knew that going in or not. When vengeance rears its ugly head, prepare for things to get messy.
Sam’s Shot at Redemption Goes South
Our protagonist Sam is an ex-con trying to turn his life around after fleeing from his native France to Thailand. He’s built a humble but happy life working odd jobs like driving airport passengers while residing in a fishing village with his pregnant girlfriend Mia and her young daughter Dara, who Sam loves as his own. They’re a tight-knit family unit dreaming of opening a beachfront restaurant together one day.
After years keeping his head down, trouble finds Sam when a local crime lord named Narong tries to lure him into a shady job by questioning his manhood. Needing money to buy some contested land for Mia’s restaurant, Sam reluctantly becomes a drug mule at the airport. But that gig goes south fast when security guards catch Sam and chaos ensues.
Sam narrowly escapes and rushes home to grab Mia and Dara so they can all disappear for good this time. But Narong’s goons are already there, and these dudes don’t mess around. In an intensely tragic turn, they viciously murder Mia right in front of Sam and kidnap little Dara to boot. Just when our man finally caught a break, his life is shattered in an instant.
Now with revenge on the mind and rage in his heart, Sam sets out on a relentless quest to find Dara and make every last person involved in destroying his family pay the ultimate price. This is the point where Sam stops running and starts handing out beatdowns like Halloween candy. Once this farang gets fired up, no measure of brutality will satisfy his lust for vengeance. We’re talking mayhem in the truest sense. Narong’s gang seriously dun goofed, and Sam is about to show them no mercy.
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Revenge 101 With Added Heart
On paper, Mayhem! sticks closely to the revenge thriller playbook. We’ve got the ex-con hero wronged by villains in a tragic turn that claims the life of his loved one(s), sending him on a predictable warpath of retribution marked by graphic violence. Sam’s arc from wrongly imprisoned to righteously furious is about as cookie-cutter as these stories come.
But director Xavier Gens tries injecting some humanity amidst the carnage, spending the film’s first half establishing Sam as a three-dimensional protagonist driven by relatable motivations. Beyond just sympathy points when tragedy strikes, we truly feel connected to his loving relationship with Mia and young Dara. Their shared goal of opening a beach bar gives texture to the “trying to start fresh” trope.
So when the baddies shatter Sam’s new life, it lands with real emotional gut punch before the physical pummeling starts. And oh boy, once this farang gets fired up, the back half descends into a maelstrom of savage revenge done Samurai style. We’re talking arterial spray, limb dismemberment, point-blank head shots, and good old-fashioned face punching that makes Rambo look polite.
While not exactly subverting genre conventions, Mayhem! succeeds in grounding its gleefully gory tale in genuine humanity before blasting off into the blood-soaked stratosphere. You really feel for gentle giant Sam as he undergoes a literal mayhem-fueled metamorphosis. Mild-mannered Clark Kent this dude is not. When the switch flips, hell unleashes.
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Gritty Realism With Occasional Poetry
Given his background directing more horror-centric fare like Frontier(s) and Cold Skin, Xavier Gens brings an appreciably restrained approach to the earlier dramatic scenes. He dials back the visual flash early on to let the characters and emotions shine before unleashing his inner gore hound as events turn violent.
Once the action erupts, Gens borrows liberally from the playbook of producer Gareth Evans and his hugely influential Raid films. That means шaky handheld camera work positioned up close on the performers to accentuate every punch, stab, and skull crack. Bone-crunching sound design renders the impacts with wince-inducing ferocity. Compared to the elaborately choreographed fight dance of Evans’ work, the action here relies more on brute force over finesse. Combatants grapple desperately, landing devastating blows built on maximum efficiency rather than style.
And when the violence escalates, Gens returns to his horror roots to craft increasingly gnarly and creative death scenes. While certainly gritty and visceral, the director finds moments of strange beauty amidst the grimy proceedings. A shot of Sam underwater struggling after an explosion carries an odd lyricism. The saturated neon hues of a red light district brothel sequence verge on dreamlike atmosphere even as depraved acts transpire within.
So while Gens leans hard into the “Ong Bak by way of The Raid” framework once Sam starts cracking skulls, he can’t resist injecting impressionistic flourishes here and there. For the most part Mayhem! feels grounded in a certain scuzzy realism, but the director strives to show he can create indelible images to complement the wince-worthy action.
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Lyes Leads the Way
Rising action star Nassim Lyes delivers a breakout performance as the burly Sam, nicely balancing physical imposingness with emotional sensitivity. We believe him completely in the early scenes as a loving family man who moves through life gently despite his intimidating fighter’s frame. When sorrow and rage consume him later on, Lyes turns on the gruff intensity while still conveying the underlying pain that motivates his relentless aggression. He handles the demands of the action choreography with aplomb for an actor relatively new to headlining lead roles like this.
As Sam’s girlfriend Mia, Loryn Nounay makes a strong impression, quickly earning our affection with her warm presence. We grasp her dreams of the beachfront bar and recognize the strength of her bond with Sam in Nounay’s thoughtful performance. She elevates the “doomed lover” archetype beyond superficial traits, though she disappears from the film too quickly once violence derails paradise.
Veteran French actor Olivier Gourmet doesn’t get quite enough screen time to match his talents, but he remains effectively chilling as crime boss Narong. Gourmet projects cruel intelligence and wry arrogance without overplaying the villainy. His refined screen presence sells the notion of Narong as an imposing figure lurking ominously over proceedings.
Beyond that central trio, the supporting characters tend towards the thinly sketched variety. We never move much past stock types like the brash henchmen or the kindly coach who cares for Sam. But the core relationships resonate thanks largely to Lyes and Nounay’s emotionally credible work, enriching the revenge premise beyond mere exploitational thrills when the mayhem hits hardest. We feel their loss and thus Sam’s fury.
Late Blooming Ultraviolence
It takes some patience before Mayhem! evolves into the skull-smashing showcase implied by its bloodthirsty title. The early action beats prove modest and perfunctory, lacking much flair or impact. A machete fight glimpsed during the opening prison section feels strangely muted, failing to establish stakes or Sam’s physical gifts beyond nondescript toughness.
The underground kickboxing matches come closer to pop with their primal brutality, but they remain quick-hit beats prioritizing Sam’s character goals over dynamic staging. These fights emphasize his reluctance over champion spirit, keeping athletic displays in check.
That initially patient approach pays dividends once plot machinations give way to unrepentant vengeance. The back half unleashes Xavier Gens’ gruesome sensibilities, upping the creative cruelty exponentially. An extended sequence set in a red light district warehouse provides horror fans satisfaction as Sam unleashes fury from hell in giddily ghastly ways. Let’s just say he gets…inventive dispatching of his many opponents.
The mayhem centerpiece arises even later during a hallway and elevator dust-up for the ages. Here Gens shows his action chops, fluidly moving the camera alongside Sam during extended takes rather than cheating edits. The shift from open hallway to cramped elevator geometry ups the tension. Bodies contort grotesquely as bones crack in the blood-drenched fracas. Through it all, Gens effectively conveys the physical toll on Sam rather than making him an impervious automaton. Our hero takes his lumps.
By exercising early restraint, Mayhem! is able to eventually indulge in veritable Grand Guignol grue. The delayed gratification in the action design makes the eventual goriness land harder. And while those early fights pale in comparison, they deepen viewer investment in Sam’s emotional plight, amplifying the cathartic viciousness once this farang goes medieval on his enemies with nothing left to lose.
Mayhem! Brings the Pain, Not the Brains
At its best, Mayhem! delivers satisfyingly hard-hitting action anchored by Nassim Lyes’ star-making performance as a loving family man turned wrathful angel of vengeance. Xavier Gens crafts fight scenes emphasized more on force and emotional catharsis over elaborate design, while still sprinkling instances of visual poetry amidst the grimy proceedings. The decision to build character early on enriches the violence once it reaches gonzo levels late in the game. We feel the loss fueling our hero’s relentless crusade.
But the film also suffers from wafer-thin characters beyond the principal trio and a largely rote revenge thriller narrative devoid of thematic ambition. Once Sam sets out on his quest, it becomes a familiar case of ticking villain names off the murder list until reaching the inevitable final showdown. For all the bodily brutality portrayed, Gens seems less concerned with minds or meanings.
While not reaching the operatic heights of Gareth Evans’ Raid films, Mayhem! at least succeeds as an electrifying highlight reel showing its commitment to various methods of human destruction. It can’t escape comparisons to The Night Comes for Us and John Wick Chapter 3 in that regard, matching their energy but not skill for layered characterizations or world-building.
Yet judging Mayhem! against those contemporary genre high water marks perhaps unfairly downplays its triumphs. For fans of person-on-person face punching carnage, Gens ultimately delivers the savage goods backed by ample heart in the quieter moments. The thin plotting does this Farang’s fury few favors, but the sweetly brutal torture porn payoff still satisfies. By the climax, the film earns its sensational title through sheer gory audacity alone. Mayhem! might not be great cinema, but it slakes a certain bloodlust beautifully.
Sure to Tide You Over Until The Next Raid
It takes some time to work up a head of steam, but Mayhem! ultimately pays off patience with suitably wince-worthy vengeance action. While the emotional setup creates a strong foundation, director Xavier Gens leans too hard on played-out storytelling tropes once the fireworks start. We’ve seen this bare-bones revenge tale many times before.
Yet for all its narrative shortcomings, Mayhem! excels where it truly counts: showcasing a charming star on the rise in Nassim Lyes and delivering exquisitely ouch-worthy fight choreography once his character gets fired up. Is it on par with the best of Gareth Evans’ instant martial arts classics? Not quite – but it proves enough of a gnarly triumph on its own crass terms to tide over genre devotees until Evans drops his next roundhouse kick to the face.
By spending its first half carefully establishing characters and relationships beyond superficial threats and conflicts, Mayhem! earns leeway with formulaic plotting later on. We feel the loss fueling our hero’s relentless crusade, even if he dispatches annoyingly indistinct villains along the predictable warpath. As long as you arrive thirsting for testosterone-fueled ultra-violence, this half-Thai grinder mostly delivers on the promise of its bloodthirsty name no matter how it gets there.
At just under 100 minutes, Mayhem! could stand to indulge its gnarly ultraviolence even more. But patient fans willing to endure the familiar revenge thriller beats will find ample satisfaction in Nassim Lyes' emotionally grounded performance and the wince-inducing fight choreography once his aggrieved hero starts cracking skulls with ruthless efficiency. Is this a genre high water mark? Nah. But it's a mostly fun stopgap highlight reel for human-on-human brutality while we await the next action masterwork.
- Raw and realistic fight choreography
- Nassim Lyes gives a star-making lead performance
- Strong emotional hook from family tragedy premise
- Creative and gnarly violence once revenge plot kicks in
- Some visually arresting flourishes from director Xavier Gens
- Slow pace and lack of action for the first half
- Rote, seen-it-before revenge thriller narrative
- Underdeveloped villains and thin secondary characters
- Can't match the ambition of The Raid films it emulates
- Drags a bit leading up to the eventual climax