The following review for Jesse Johnson’s The Debt Collector was originally published on May 28, 2018. Click here to read my review for the sequel, Debt Collectors, out in the U.S. on May 29 from Samuel Goldwyn Films.
The past several years have seen quite a bit from stunt multi-hyphenate and filmmaker Jesse V. Johnson. Notable efforts like the classy and cool noir, The Beautiful Ones, and down and dirty action thrillers like Savage Dog and Accident Man have all come to pass as some of the best the genre has put out by far, and not without the measured efforts of our director in his current stride with actor Scott Adkins – a dauntless screen talent with twenty years in film and television – who is a continual quest to break more ground as a prospective mainstream entertainer.
It’s a period that’s lasted since before Johnson’s third film, Pit Fighter, on which Adkins appeared in a brief role; three years after the burgeoning action star laid claim in a breakout capacity on Isaac Florentine’s 2003 direct-to-video hit, Special Forces. Since then, the U.K. actor has been fortunate to teeter somewhat between independent and A-list productions, and in doing so, maintain his career in the face of recalcitrant industrial exclusivity, and the constant threat of piracy that small scale productions face.
Therein lies the same alerting duress that Johnson himself faces having worked his way up following a fifteen year career to build his craft behind the lens and indeed, it’s taken some time for him to do so, having surrounded himself with creatives who share a hunger equal to his own. It’s that same hunger that now leads us to the new movie, The Debt Collector, a modest production on which Johnson hails as a creative who can distribute an even plating of drama and action without undercutting both.
Johnson brings Accident Man scribe Stu Small on board this time around for Adkins in a two-hander with actor Louis Mandylor. Set in the homely L.A. town of Venice in California, we meet French, a classically trained mixed-martial arts instructor in a financial bind and about to lose his school until he’s optioned with a shot at making some cold hard cash – so long as he can stay alive. He meets and makes his debut in the “collection” business under the employment of a mobster named Tommy who educates him on the obligatory do’s and don’ts of the job while Sue, his hard-boiled partner with a longer tenure, takes him on the road in shows him the ropes whilst literally putting him in the drivers’ seat.
What follows is probably one of the worst ways to start off a weekend for French as he’s ultimately forced dodge bullets and vehicular manslaughter, and throw down with goons three times his size and only to get man-handled and used as a human boulder. Soon enough, French also learns just how malleable his new occupation will be when he and Sue find themselves on a gig that is later exposed for more than what it appears to be.
There’s a certain visual, poetic symmetry here Johnson invokes and it’s not for the faint of heart – point in fact it may even be a little disturbing for a select lot. The artistic motive is made well clear by the end which, if the senses are apt to the task, leaves the viewer to decide a fitting analysis of their own apart from the overall delivery.
All else pertains to the sum of the film’s parts which don’t disappoint, as capable as Johnson continues to prove himself to be, and his script alone with co-writer Small is a useful example as Adkins and Mandylor gel favorably well on screen. Both Johnson and Small craft some terrific zingers between both actors, including a few that even bode as a small nod to the fourth wall if you’re an avid b-movie fanatic and have been keeping up with things in the last ten years.
Adkins’ French is a formidable man of multiple trades whose resilience supercedes his short-lived prospects and pretty much any expectation that he’ll sell himself short to do better. Despite the odds, he’s convinced he’s willing to do whatever it takes, and the same goes for Sue who has a greater leg up in his line of work and serves more in a diplomatic capacity without as much weight in responsibility compared to the role French plays on jobs. Moreover, Sue is disciplined in every inch of his field and always following suit when it comes to Tommy’s parameters – a factor that ultimately bodes as consequential when the crucial moment of truth hits him in the third act.
Several key supporting characters respective to our two leads further help shape the story through the third act, with Michael Paré entering at the top of the film as Mad Alex. Vladimir Kulich joins in the role of Tommy following the complex, albeit evil Nazi prison warden in Johnson’s Savage Dog. Tony Todd stands just as towering, creepy and brooding as film fans would hope in the role of Barbosa, along with actress Rachel Brann as Barbosa’s promiscuous fiancé, Amanda, and Jack Lowe in the pivotal fugitive role of Connor. Actress and newly added Boss Level co-star Selina Lo adds to the conclave of supporting roles as Sandy.
Actor and martial artist David William No, certainly a name to make note of in the weeks since trading blows and blades with actor Eric Jacobus in the hit shortfilm, Blindsided: The Game, inaugurates the heavy hitting fight action opposite our lead action star. Rounding out the film’s cavalcade of muscle are Adkins’ fellow Undisputed 3 cohort Esteban Cueto, sibling stunt duo Jamal and Big John Duff and Rob Mars with choreographer and coordinator Luke LaFontaine sizing up the fight scenery. The editing and cinematography lend a seamless display for action fans, and a warm welcome for critics ever aware of the entropic nature of action on film; As recent history shows, the likes of Johnson and LaFontaine are far from other ne’er-do-well types to make any crippling mistakes in that department.
At the heart of The Debt Collector lies a subtle, almost warm meta message that dishes out a cold, hard fact about life, the choices we make and how one mitigates their own moral compass before the day is over. There’s a chilling air to the film in this regard, and it’s woven and crafted well within the narrative – itself, peppered with comedic wit and an almost buddying tone that guarantees viewers are going to enjoy this latest entry and it speaks highly to Johnson’s credit and the work he does.
Compared to a lot of other independent directors, he has a certain cultivation in his creative stride and a sense of wisdom etched into the visage of his character design and general aesthetic that can entertain today’s audiences, as well as film fans reminiscent of a yesteryear era of cinema. He applies his craft with a refreshing resolve to steady the eyes, along with the top-notch, almost wall-to-wall fight action, stuntwork and gun play that culminates the film’s grim subtext and situational irony that lends a solemn, prodigious and rather pleasant capitulation to an action film with a deserving action star on its marquee.