In the waning days of World War Two, a small group of American soldiers, led by the cunning Major Maitland, are heading to a forgotten graveyard in the French countryside. With them is Marie, recently freed from a Nazi prison but still labeled a German sympathizer by her fellow French countrymen. Maitland and his men pulled her from an angry mob due to assurances that she would lead them to a cache of stolen Nazi gold that was left hidden by her and her former lover, a member of Hitler’s elite guard named “Von Bruckner.” What none of them realize is that Von Bruckner is abandoning Germany’s losing war effort; with plans to head overseas with his loyal followers. So, he is also making his way to that same graveyard in hopes of retrieving the gold and when he arrives with his squad it will set off a bloody and explosive free-for-all that will prove to be as brutal as any conflict they experienced during the war. This is the deceptively simple setup for director Jesse V. Johnson’s new film, HELL HATH NO FURY.
Johnson has for the past several years quietly amassed one of the strongest runs of any filmmaker in recent memory. Working in the action genre, he has proven repeatedly that he can work within the confines of modest budgets and limited shooting days and still consistently produce thrilling work that far surpasses expectations. With HELL HATH NO FURY, Johnson has done just that yet again but he has also delivered one of the strongest and darkest films of his career. Yes, HELL HATH NO FURY is an exceptionally bleak and brutal film. Johnson, working with limited locations and a small cast of (almost exclusively) character actors pulled from his previous productions, has created a grimy action yarn that feels like a wartime homage to Sam Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, if every participant was as sweaty and desperate as Warren Oates’ main character and trapped in a perpetual version of that classic film’s final bloody reel.
The grit and violence might all be unbearable if the film weren’t so finely crafted in every area. The script, for starters, by Katharine Lee McEwan (SOLITARY) is lean, propulsive, and clever enough to never fully reveal its intentions until absolutely necessary. It also gives strong moments to every character present. It’s easy to imagine Johnson casting so many of his previous actors into the memorable roles here as a sort of “thank you” for years of reliable, quality performances. The actors themselves, of course, take these roles and do solid work with them. Louis Mandylor, as Maitland, is that odd mix of burly and disarmingly charming here that made his turn in the DEBT COLLECTOR films so compelling. Timothy V. Murphy (SONS OF ANARCHY) as Jerry, Maitland’s Dixieland-bred second, nails everything that is asked of him by the script as well. Whether he’s being menacing, brotherly, or sadly resolute in the face of possible impending death his character always feels “lived in” and real. Dominiquie Vandenberg (THE MERCENARY), yet another regular player that goes all the way back to the first films Johnson ever directed, gives unquestionably the best performance of his acting career as Clement- a French freedom fighter who ends up in the middle of the film’s central conflict. Using his native language for the entirety of the film, Vandenberg shows a level of emotion and heart that his stoic, English language turns never allowed before. Any long-time followers of his work will be astounded by the range he shows here.
Dutch singer Nina Bergman, as Marie, is at the center of HELL HATH NO FURY, and with this being her first opportunity in a true leading role, it would be understandable if she appeared outmatched by all the veteran character actors devouring the scenery all around her but Johnson rightly saw something in Bergman because she commands the screen and never once feels out of her element. Her portrayal of Marie is of someone just as desperate as the men surrounding her but not nearly as foolhardy or brazen. There is a calculating, yet fierce, quality to her work in the film that makes it feel like she will always figure out a way to come out on top, even if all the signs point to otherwise. It’s a star-making performance for Bergman and it will likely be the first of many lead roles for her in the future once audiences see what she has done here.
Special mention should also be made of the work that Daniel Bernhardt (THE MATRIX RELOADED) does as Von Bruckner. Bernhardt has, over many years out of the mainstream Hollywood spotlight, become a very strong actor as well as a highly regarded stunt performer; a fact that has been mostly ignored by the film industry until very recently. Bernhardt shows here just how much he has been overlooked. In a film full of interesting performances, Bernhardt’s obviously villainous, but subtlety sympathetic Von Bruckner is magnetic with an utterly striking screen presence. This role should rightfully lead to more high-profile acting work for him. Clearly, there is a mountain of untapped potential there just waiting to be utilized by anyone smart enough to cast him in a film.
If HELL HATH NO FURY’s tone is reminiscent of Peckinpah, its blood-drenched finale ups the ante with a bullet and practical squib count that calls to mind late 1980s John Woo films, like THE KILLER. The film’s (quite literally) explosive final stretch of action even culminates in a wonderful bit of violent melodrama that is audacious in the grand tradition of the best Hong Kong film bullet ballets. Jesse V. Johnson expertly captures all the mayhem of the film’s finale with confidence, allowing the stunt and fight work by Luke LaFontaine (SAVAGE DOG), with assistance from Bernhardt and his friends at the 87Eleven stunt team, to showcase their skills with minimal interference and always framing the action to maximize its impact.
With HELL HATH NO FURY, Jesse V. Johnson has firmly claimed the title of the most consistent action filmmaker working today. It is an extremely confident and expertly crafted film that will be a welcome treat for his established fanbase and a genuine surprise for any action fans who have wrongfully ignored his work up to this point. (4/5)
HELL HATH NO FURY is in select theaters on November 5th & on digital November 9th, 2021