One look at the early acting career of martial artist and ex-legionaire, Dominique Vandenberg, reveals a peculiar start that nearly parallels with the timing of stuntman Jesse V. Johnson’s own start to a career in filmmaking.
That was close to more than twenty years and nine film sets ago after meeting on the set of New Line Cinema’s then-1995 production, Mortal Kombat, and whatever the case stands to be, whether fortuitous or by design, the duo have hitherto stood the test of time.
Enter the violent, rip-roaring and fatalist world of mercenaries, bloodshed, redemption and destiny as illustrated in their latest film, The Mercenary, featuring Vandenberg in the title role this time around after a brief villainous stint in Johnson’s Asian action ensemble, Triple Threat. The film also rejoins Johnson with actor Louis Mandylor whose recent credits with the director include two of the latest hard-hitting Scott Adkins releases, The Debt Collector and Avengement, with the former currently in tow for a sequel.
The Mercenary takes its cues from an early comic book character Vandenberg once tried to pitch to an AR/VR studio he was a board member on before retracting after the studio took a different direction. Penned by David Filmore, the film centers on Maxx (Vandenberg), a member of a mercenary squad led by LeClerc (Mandylor) as they travel the world, taking out foreign adversaries armies at a time, killing almost indiscriminantly whether their targets are actual killers, or innocents forced into laboring for them.
Maxx, albeit quietly, is already showing signs that he’s burning out from the life and lifestyle of killing for money. He still gets the job done, though each body account is a visible addition to the weight on his conciousness, and in an abrupt moment of desperation to stop a heinous, is nearly killed by a fellow mercenary and left for dead before being rescued hours later by Father Elias (Carmen Argenziano).
Maxx awakens, temporarily mute from his injuries as Elias familiarizes him with the church grounds, explaining what becomes an arrangement of equity between guest and host. At this juncture, the whys and hows are still a mystery, but Elias still chooses to take Maxx in as a gesture of his own faith and good will, and perhaps realizing Max’s own good will to come.
Maxx spends his days acclimating to the church while attempting to improve his image, little by little. The latter takes a turn when a standoff between Maxx and two cartelmen arouses support for the church’s new guest, only he doesn’t know that LeClerc and his former squad are still in the neighborhood. Much to his surprise, LeClerc learns his once best hired killer and former comrade is alive, and he’s not willing to let go easily.
Vandenberg’s take on the “warrior priest with-a-twist”, serves well the film’s larger-than-life backdrop for an unapologetic, R-rated one-man army action thriller. Johnson’s signature throwback style of action-on-film is an equalizer for many an action fan driven away from the mainstream’s PG-13 millieu, and so you get a healthy serving of gratuitous violence and bloodletting that also cosigns the literary subtext Vandenberg’s Maxx is founded on, “Vive La Mort”.
Vandenberg’s performance measures adequately throughout, and in some moments even moreso where he’s able to facially translate the personalized morbidity and isolation his character deals with in the first half. It adds reverence and intensity to the film’s more buoyant m.o. in its efforts to package and deliver a nine-minute revenge thriller easily recommendable among a pantheon of revenge thrillers similar to it.
The big pay off comes in the second half as the revelations unfold between Maxx and Father Elias in the wake of everything that has happened. At one point, Maxx is reluctant to kill anyone, but soon comes to his own realization of the purpose of his craft through Elias’s counsel. Or as Elias himself puts it. to our stoic protagonist: “Maybe you should do God’s work.”
It’s anyone’s guess or opinion from that point on as to whether or not this sort of religious adherence sits well. At its core and despite some of its more abbreviated story elements, The Mercenary nonetheless dishes out a meaty, low budget, paint-by-numbers action thriller with solid cast performances including from Mandylor and late actor Argenziano, and enough bullet holes, crushed skulls, exposed intestines and puddles of the red stuff for the film to live up to its name, its rating, the expectations of its target audience, and any hopes there may be for a sequel.