Director: Isaac Florentine
Writer: Matt Venne
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Cristina Serafini, Atanas Srebrev, Karl Urban, David Sakurai, Paz Vega, Robert Forster, Mark Rhino Smith, Isaac Florentine
Running Time: 85 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Ever since Liam Neeson took that fateful phone call in Taken, now almost a decade ago, the no nonsense over-50 action star has become something of a sub-genre in Hollywood. While Neeson himself has cranked out plenty of titles in a similar mould since, he’s been joined along the way by everyone from Denzel Washington in The Equalizer, to Keanu Reeves in John Wick, to Bruce Willis in the Death Wish remake. Even everyone’s favorite no-frills action star Jason Statham has just turned 50. Frankly, being an older gentleman has never been so cool. What all of these movies have in common though, is that they ditch the self-awareness that productions like The Expendables franchise come packaged with, and deliver the action beats with a straight forward poker face. These guys have been wronged, and they’re going to make you pay. Keep it simple.
In 2017, Antonio Banderas has clearly decided that he wants a piece of the action. An actor of 35 years, for many Banderas first registered as the El Mariachi of Desperado, director Robert Rodriguez’s big screen English language debut from 1995. Since then, Banderas has frequently flitted in and out of the action genre, with his most recent excursion seeing him feature in the lamentable third instalment of The Expendables. In 2017 though, he’s decided to take the plunge into the DTV action arena, cranking out Security, Gun Shy, and Acts of Vengeance. Depending on which way you look at it, if he keeps things up at this rate Steven Seagal is going to have some competition.
Out of the three, it was Acts of Vengeance that got my attention. Initially titled Stoic in the early stages of production, it offers the intriguing proposition of partnering Banderas with frequent Scott Adkins collaborators Isaac Florentine and Tim Man, as director and fight choreographer respectively. Florentine has been in the directing game since the early 90’s, however it’s his partnership with British martial arts star Scott Adkins which usually get action fans salivating, which dates back to 2003’s Special Forces. Florentine’s projects without Adkins on-board tend not to fare as well, as any review of his 2012 movie Assassin’s Bullet, starring Christian Slater, will prove.
Swedish fight choreographer Tim Man on the other hand has gone from strength to strength in recent years, with 2017 providing one of his busiest periods yet, handling the choreography not only for Acts of Vengeance, but also the Scott Adkins vehicles Accident Man and Triple Threat. To see how Banderas would adapt to the physically demanding style of screen fighting, that Man has a talent for putting together in a very short space of time, was an element of Acts of Vengeance I was looking forward to.
Just like the title suggests, the structure of Florentine’s latest is split into 6 acts. Proceedings open in the middle of act 4, which see’s Banderas beating up on a kitchen hand in a diner, before flashing back to allow us to understand how he reached this apparent boiling point. Much like the less action oriented Assassin’s Bullet, the first half hour of Acts of Vengeance shows all of Florentine’s weaknesses as a director. The story and characters trudge along in a way which has been done hundreds of times before, and usually better. Banderas is a hot shot lawyer who rarely loses a case, however his dedication to the job means that his personal life is suffering. When work commitments prevent him from attending his daughters school concert (which just to make things worse, she’s singing his favorite song at), his life is turned upside down when both of them are discovered murdered later on the same night.
Despite the traumatic nature of the event, everything feels perfunctory, almost as if Florentine himself wants to speed through the early parts of Matt Venne’s script, so he can get to the stuff he knows he’s good at. While Banderas is drowning his sorrows in the bottom of a liquor bottle, he just so happens to stumble across an illegal fighting tournament, apparently taking place behind nothing more than a set of curtains at the back of the bar. To punish himself, he starts partaking in the fights, allowing his opponent to beat the living daylights out of him as self-penance for not being there for his family. It’s only when he’s propositioned by a 15 year old prostitute, and promptly thrown through the window of a second hand book store by her pimps, that he comes across the book Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. The Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, the book contains his thoughts and ideas on Stoic philosophy (hence the original, more interesting, title).
Its passages from the book which are used as the titles for each act, and a part which can essentially be boiled down to saying that actions speak louder than words, make Banderas decide to take a vow of silence until he finds his families killer. Once this decision is made, thankfully the pace picks up, and Banderas has good chemistry with his co-stars Paz Vega and Judge Dredd himself, Karl Urban, here playing a cop sympathetic to his case. While Banderas still provides occasional narration, considering the clichéd nature of the opening third, minimising his lines works in favour of Acts of Vengeance, allowing him to emote with expressions only.
In many ways Florentine’s latest feels like a hodgepodge of the over-50 action star genre efforts that we’ve seen over the years. I felt sure that Banderas was going to take the teenage prostitute under his wing once he’d recovered, and rescue her from the pimps, just like Denzel Washington does in The Equalizer, but instead she (and the pimps) are never heard from again. Likewise when Banderas takes on a group of thugs and their dog. Once he’s laid the smack down on the two-legged goons, they run off and leave the dog behind, which takes a liking to Banderas and proceeds to follow him around for the rest of the movie. A grieving husband whose lost his wife finding consolation in a dog? It could well be argued that Acts of Vengeance is an unintended prequel to John Wick.
Thankfully just like his peers though, Banderas proves he’s capable of turning himself into a driven fighter. Once he comes to his senses, we’re treated to a montage which sees him taking martial arts lessons from both Florentine and Man, appearing in brief cameos doing what they do best. Then at the 40 minute mark we finally get to see the result of his training regime, as he confronts 4 thugs in the previously mentioned confrontation with the dog. It’s a brief fight, but has all of the distinctive hallmarks of a Florentine/Man collaboration, with the stop-start slow motion for added impact, and a hard hitting flow. Seeing Banderas lay on the pain with an extendable baton he disarms one of the thugs of will no doubt bring a smile to many.
However Acts of Vengeance is just as focused on the “who dunnit?” aspect of the murders as it is the action beats, a balance which is well maintained, but for those expecting to see Banderas as perhaps an older version of Colt MacReady, there’ll likely be a sense of disappointment. It’s no spoiler to say that he does indeed track down the murderer, and it allows Acts of Vengeance to deliver a worthy one-on-one finale between Banderas and someone who it would be a spoiler to reveal the identity of here. What I most enjoyed about the 3 minute throwdown, is that Banderas isn’t made out to suddenly be some kind of efficient killing machine, and he actually spends the majority of the fight on the receiving end of some heavy punishment. It’s a welcome touch of realism, establishing him as the underdog and allowing the audience to root for his victory.
All in all Acts of Vengeance is far from the disaster that was Assassin’s Bullet, and Florentine is to be admired for stepping outside of his comfort zone of working with Scott Adkins. It achieves its goal of being a straight forward revenge thriller, which is no doubt exactly what it was aiming to be, so as long as expectations are set accordingly, Acts of Vengeance should find its audience.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6/10