(US - 2020)
AVENGEMENT, an instant cult classic that should've opened on 3000 screens. Johnson's been plugging away in the world of DTV for 20 years, but he's found a niche with fellow workhorse Adkins, and DEBT COLLECTORS marks their sixth collaboration since 2017. These two can blow the doors of the joint with stuff like AVENGEMENT and ACCIDENT MAN, but DEBT COLLECTORS, a sequel to 2018's THE DEBT COLLECTOR, suffers from the same issues as its predecessor: it's trying to be a Shane Black movie but Johnson and co-writer Stu Small's script doesn't quite have the chops to compete. After being mentored in the first film in the ways of debt collection for loan sharks by '80s ninja movie washout Sue (Louis Mandylor), French (Adkins) is sucked back into that world when Sue asks him for a favor: he needs backup for a road trip from L.A. to Vegas to collect three vigs for his boss Big Tommy (Vladimir Kulich, also returning). One of those includes getting $155,000 from ruthless club owner and Sue's pegging-enthusiast ex-flame Mal Reese (Marina Sirtis), but as soon as they collect it, they're nearly ambushed by Mal's own crew trying to get the money back. Then they get $95K from gym owner Estaban Madrid (Cuete Yeska), and pay a visit to obnoxious Cyrus Skinner (Vernon Wells), before all hell breaks loose and people start trying to kill them. It seems Big Tommy's operation has been taken over by Molly X (Louie Ski Carr), the vengeful brother of the dead Barbosa Furiosa, French and Sue's double-crossing nemesis from the first film (where he was played by CANDYMAN's Tony Todd), and he's got scores to settle with all of them.
Johnson and Adkins finally unleash the mayhem in the third act, but too much of DEBT COLLECTORS is just endlessly talky, and once again, the repartee between French and Sue just isn't that snappy or witty. If anything, DEBT COLLECTORS is much darker and more serious than the first film, which makes the crazy action, especially a comically long alley French-Sue alley brawl that's a blatant riff on THEY LIVE, seem at odds with the overtures to real drama. Much of the time, this actually feels like more of a Louis Mandylor loan shark drama than a Scott Adkins actioner, with Mandylor really getting some room to work with Sue talking about his dead daughter and stopping at nothing to display his loyalty to the fatherly Big Tommy. A lot of Adkins fans liked THE DEBT COLLECTOR--with some citing it as a Walter Hill homage--but it just didn't click with me, and DEBT COLLECTORS really didn't either. A couple of nicely-delivered zingers land (Brit French trying to talk some rednecks out of a bar fight, only to be dismissed with a "Fuck off, Harry Styles!") and the action definitely takes center stage by the end, but it's hard to get excited about this when there's both better Johnson/Adkins projects and enough real Shane Black movies that we don't really need another middling imitation of one. (Unrated, 97 mins)
ROBERT THE BRUCE
(US - 2020)
featured Macfadyen as Robert the Bruce, the eventual King of Scots from 1306 to his death in 1329. Set not long after the 1305 execution of William Wallace, ROBERT THE BRUCE's title character has been met with one defeat after another, and goes off on his own as some defectors from his army are opting to hunt him down and turn him in for a handsome reward. He's seriously injured and nearly killed by a trio of traitors led by Will (ALMOST FAMOUS' Patrick Fugit), but he makes his way through the snowbound wilderness and takes refuge in a cave near the cottage of the peasant Macfie family, headed by the widow Morag (THE CABIN IN THE WOODS' Anna Hutchison). Morag's late husband and her brother were killed in battle in Robert the Bruce's army, and now she's raising her young son Scott (Gabriel Bateman) and her brother's teenage children, Carney (Brandon Lessard) and Iver (Talitha Bateman, who played Hutchison's daughter in the Nic Cage thriller VENGEANCE: A LOVE STORY). It isn't long before the family is visited by Brandubh (DEATH RACE: BEYOND ANARCHY's Zach McGowan), Morag's husband's younger brother, who's on the hunt for Robert the Bruce while making his designs on his sister-in-law quite clear ("My brother was a lucky man...until death claimed him"). The family finds Robert the Bruce near death in the woods surrounding the cottage and realize it's their duty to nurse their king back to health, even though young Scott initially resents him and blames him for his father's death. Soon, the entire family bands together to protect and fight alongside the king, even if it means turning against one of their own when Brandubh inevitably tracks the Bruce to the Macfie home.
Supporting actors from beloved '90s classics making their own unofficial "sequels" decades later seems to be a thing this year between this and John Turturro's unwatchable BIG LEBOWSKI offshoot THE JESUS ROLLS. While it's easy to think of it as BRAVEHEART II: THE BRUCE ROLLS, ROBERT THE BRUCE isn't the fiasco you'd be inclined to assume it would be. Macfadyen produced and co-wrote the script, and while it obviously suffers from budget constraints, director Richard Gray keeps things polished and professional, with the snowy mountainous terrain of Montana doing a credible job of filling in for Scotland. It looks better than most DTV-level fare of this sort, and Macfadyen's intent is sincere (considering 25 years have passed since BRAVEHEART and he's still playing the same character at roughly that same age, he doesn't appear that much older, and he obviously hit the gym prior to shooting, looking noticeably slimmer than he has in recent years), but other than a journeyman actor finding a way to reprise his best-known role, what's the point? The story presented here is Robert the Bruce fan fiction, and the battles depicted in the 2018 Netflix film OUTLAW KING (with Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce) are only mentioned yadda-yadda-style in onscreen text before the closing credits, obviously since ROBERT THE BRUCE doesn't have the money to convincingly stage epic battle sequences. For the first hour, Macfadyen almost appears to be on Bruce Willis detail, offscreen for long stretches and periodically dropping in on his own movie to mostly lie in a cave grimacing in pain while we get caught up on the backstory of Morag's family. He almost seems to be erring on the side of caution to avoid the pitfalls of a vanity project--there's a big, rousing speech at the end, and Robert the Bruce isn't even the one delivering it. ROBERT THE BRUCE is far too long at just over two hours, Jared Harris is wasted in a brief cameo as John Comyn, and when MAGNOLIA's Melora Walters shows up as Morag's witch mother, apparently on furlough from a lost Shakespeare play, things get precariously close to IN THE NAME OF THE KING-era Uwe Boll territory. ROBERT THE BRUCE was scheduled for a one-night-only Fathom Events screening at theaters nationwide in April 2020 before that plan was nixed by the coronavirus, resulting in the straight-to-VOD premiere that was its destiny from the very start. All things considered, it's not bad, but perhaps this whole thing should be shut down before Jaimz Woolvett gets any bright ideas about UNFORGIVEN II: THE SCHOFIELD KID. (Unrated, 123 mins)
(Italy/US - 2020)
It's too bad, because you can see Argento is really throwing herself into this. She stars as Isidora, a New York artist married to Michael (Jonathan Caouette) and with a young daughter, Jordan (Claudia Salerno, who's been unconvincingly dubbed over). Isidora's life is turned upside down when she's notified that her mother has died and left her the executrix of the family estate in a remote area of Tuscany. That's news to Isidora, who's been under the impression that her mother died 30 years ago when her gallery owner father Arthur (Rade Serbedzija) brought her to NYC. It turns out Isidora's mother was insane and tried to kill her, and she was so young at the time that her father thought it best to just get her far away, start over, and hope the memory faded. Off the family goes to Tuscany, where things are weird right from the start, and it's clear that everyone--including prim, proper caretaker Angelica (a nice Alida Valli-esque turn by Monica Guerritore) and affable handyman Rudolfo (long-ago Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli)--is hiding something, and that's even before aristocratic local Carlo (Franco Nero, looking like a rock star with a ponytail and an earring) starts dropping clunky exposition about the area being a haven for heretics and her mother being a witch. There's a good buildup here, and Civetta (or Schuman) tries to go for some Dario Argento colorgasms but it just comes off as cheap, garish, and overly affected, and the crazier Isidora becomes, the more they start piling on disorienting Dutch angles like a Hal Hartley wet dream. There are some good things in AGONY--Argento's increasingly anguished performance is pretty harrowing by the end, the look of the estate, which screams "decaying Visconti," and Davoli's ever-beaming grin, so vital to his Chaplin-esque comic performances for Pasolini, is used in a subversively sinister way here--but it's a structural and tonal disaster. Caouette, a documentary filmmaker (ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES) who acts infrequently, has no chemistry with Argento, young Salerno's revoicing is distractingly bad in a "Bob in THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY" way, and the final shot just destroys any good will AGONY might've been accruing in its favor. And who thought it was a good idea to cast Rade Serbedzija as a guy named "Arthur?" (Unrated, 82 mins)