Freerunning extraordinare and actor David Belle is someone, in all certainty, I can vouch for when it comes to film and TV talent. I do profess, however, that it has been a little frustrating seeing him between phases of his career – at one point he’s leading a hit film and its sequel and at another, he’s being pigeonholed into smaller roles. I expected more than this after first catching him in action for the first time in Pierre Morel’s Banlieue 13 (not so much so in that film’s sorely, and poorly mishandled 2015 remake, Brick Mansions).
At best, one can hope that this particular phase changes as Belle moves onward with his career prospects, especially after spotting two trailers last year, one being for concept project called Jaya which also featured actor and late martial arts star Darren Shahlavi at the time. The other, Brutal: A Taste Of Violence, depending on your own tastes, for that matter, has gladly taken shape as its own series which is currently being streamed via Studio+ for mobile users in France and South America, and with any luck, for consumers overseas in due time with possible availability on platforms such as Blackpills or Netflix.
The series hails from Save Ferris Entertainment with filmmaker Julien Colonna making his series debut, bringing Belle back into the fold as central protagonist Axel Chen, a former solider making a living as a bouncer in France whose life is immediately thrown into lesser-needed chaos following a late night brawl with three thugs, accidently killing one of them in the process. With his name plastered all over the news, he has no choice but to turn to Marcus, an illegal underground fight promoter for his only chance at an escape, only to land in even thicker circumstances with his next destination in Thailand. It is there that Chen’s journey of self-discovery will decidedly either become one of regret, or redemption when a bet goes awry and forces Chen to fight for Marcus in order to save the gym that took him in, and its humble owner.
I earlier stated the insistence of one’s own tastes be taken into account for the fact that for most of the show’s run time, clocked in at a little over 58 minutes with ten episodes cut in between, Belle has no speaking lines; An earlier action sequence in the first episode sees his role sustain an injury to his vocal chords rendering him silent and unable to talk. This leaves the weight of the scripted drama and dialogue on the rest of the cast, obligating Belle’s acting range to focus more expressively next to the show’s multiple training sequences.
Actor Vithaya Pansringarm (Only God Forgives, Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear) and actress Pim Bubear (The Man With The Iron Fists 2) who play respective father and daughter roles Lao and Lamai who service the fighters in Lao’s gym where Chen trains. Actor Byron Gibson (Only God Forgives) chews up much of the scenery in the commanding antagonist role of Marcus who also hosts the illegal online bouts where people place bets on their favorite select competitors, streamed through a webcam fitted inside of a skeleton which stands out as one of the show’s most interesting props. Pierre Marie-Mosconi and Charles Perrière stir the pot some throughout the series as France detectives Marcovic and Colbert.
The fight and stunt action directed by Laurent Demianoff and Alain Figlarz serves adequate for webseries standards as each segment is an average of six minutes, give or take. Belle’s action performance is a proven feat to watch while, in the process of filming in the all-too familiar Bourne style with shaky cam and frenetic editing at times, otherwise hampers overall watchability, leaving some parts more pleasant than others; One sequence involving a fighter taking a flying knee to the face from another fighter apparently required about four or five cuts even at high-speed lensing. The fights take place in a single constrained space leaving limited possibilities for camerawork to have an impression. Belle’s only parkour scene with Perrière feels a little less congested and offers something worthwhile to the traceur crowd.
As stated earlier, most of Belle’s portrayal of Chen is comprised of physical invocation and training montages. Fortunately he knows how to translate certain nuanced emotions and feelings and when to observe select moments of intensity, thriving on the remainder of the cast. A feasible love story arises between Chen and Lamai in one of the more heartfelt subplots as the stakes are raised nearing the third act.
Perhaps the one underlying thing worth mentioning here is the albeit experimental nature of Brutal: A Taste Of Violence. For the few scenes in which Belle’s character speaks, his voice is dubbed. It’s the third time I myself have witnessed this in watching Belle on screen which leads me to wonder if directors take issue with the way he sounds when he speaks English. I’ve only ever heard his actual voice once to that affect in an undubbed version of his line in Vin Diesel actioner, Babylon A.D.. I grant directors have their reasons for making these choices, but I rather wish I heard Belle speak more. Perhaps he could emerge more to the fanbase and be less obscured.
Or, maybe I have it wrong and his role was intended to be silent anyway. After all, Belle did co-write the script. I’m not sure. Thus, it really is a matter of opinion to those watching Brutal: A Taste Of Violence, for its story and acting stand strong when they do, and not so much on the action, save for a few moments. Gibson is at his best as the villain, and Pansringarm and Bubear lend some poignancy and meaning to what would have otherwise been a shallow story with a hero whose only means of shining on screen is by fighting his way through questionable fight-filming practices, in which case, some parts work, and other parts simply don’t.
One other upside worth pointing out here is that Brutal: A Taste Of Violence does end on a cliffhanger. If there’s more to come for the story of Axel Chen than I hope we get to see a more commanding presence of Belle by then, among other things.
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