MOVIE REVIEW OF ”THE MERCENARY”

If you have an insatiable appetite for action-oriented franchises like “Jason Bourne,” “Rambo,” and “John Wick,” “Avengement” director Jesse V. Johnson’s latest straight-to-video thriller “The Mercenary” (***  OUT OF ****) will keep you captivated throughout its lean and mean 91-minutes of testosterone-laden blood, sweat, and bullets.

This slam-bang, hard-boiled, knuckle-fisted knockout is not for the squeamish. Gunfire punctuates the plot at every turn, and arterial blood erupts in fountains.  Indeed, death is portrayed as both larger-than-life and gruesome. Seasoned spectators who crave brawny heroes, hooligan villains, and predicaments so preposterous you cannot help but admire the filmmakers’ audacity.

“The Mercenary” is definitely worth watching more than once.  Nothing about the narrative is particularly original. Nevertheless, this predictable, low-budget saga about a mercenary betrayed by his own who virtually dies twice is memorable.  Belgium-born Dominiquie Vandenberg imparts a sense of verisimilitude to his performance that only an individual who spent five years in the French Foreign Legion Special Forces can muster.

Vandenberg has been around since 1995, when he did stunts in Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Mortal Combat.” Vandenberg taught actor Leonardo Di Caprio antique knife fighting techniques for Martin Scorsese’s epic “Gangs of New York” (2002). As exciting and improbable as the “Mercenary” is, this sturdy saga should serve as Vandenberg’s breakthrough picture.

The adrenaline rush “The Mercenary” generates at moments gets even more intense when the villains who tried initially to murder him must face the wrath of his retribution. Not only does Louis Mandylor make a genuinely evil villain, but he also displays his flair for violence. You will hate this deranged rogue when he gets his unsavory henchmen to help him crucify the hero in the church.

Afterward, he has them strafe the building with gunfire galore.  Of course, no mortal soul could survive these horrendous depredations inflicted by these cold-hearted villains onto them.  Nonetheless, this doesn’t thwart our stalwart hero from wiping them out during the last half-hour of this riveting, no-holds-barred, butt-stomping showdown.

Max (Dominiquie Vandenberg of “Pit Fighter”) is a veteran member of an elite team of mercenaries.  LeClerc (Louis Mandylor of “Rambo: Last Blood”) leads these trigger-happy, tough thugs.  Basically, Max is a one-man army who can perform any task.  Not only is he a formidable sniper, but he also wields a knife like a wizard.

In an early scene, set in Iraq, before everything goes sideways for him, Max alone kills sixteen men in vicious close-quarters combat.  Later, he slashes up two pugnacious antagonists as if he were carving a turkey with a minimum number of stabbing lunges.  Surprisingly, Max has lost his taste for violence, while the rest of the mercenaries feed on the pandemonium like piranha.  Later, in Columbia, LeClerc’s unit strikes a heroin factory in the jungle.

The bodies pile up as they comb the village, strafing the sentries around the factory.  Forced to work against her will in the factory, an unarmed female tries to escape from all the murder and mayhem.  One of LeClerc’s abusive fighters, Notch (newcomer Robb Zbacnik) tries to rape her. Max intervenes long enough to find his former friend retaliating in a flash.  Notch slashes Max’s throat and leaves our hero for dead.

This scene is reminiscent of the movie “Lawless” (2012) where the villains slashed Tom Hardy’s throat, but he survived the ordeal. When LeClerc grilles Notch about Max’s whereabouts, the mercenary claims he saw Max die in an explosion.  LeClerc orders a search.  Not long afterward, LeClerc discovers Max’s sniper rifle on the ground.  One of the mercs mentions Max would never forsake his rifle.

LeClerc and company never find Max’s body.  Nevertheless, Max is far from dead.  He wanders off into the jungle and slouches against a house to die quietly until a local Catholic priest, Father Elias (the late Carmen Argenziano of “Red Scorpion”), finds him and arranges medical treatment for him.  Afterward, this compassionate cleric allows Max to recuperate and perform light duties, primarily sweeping out the church.

Father Elias is the kind of charismatic fellow you cannot help but like, even if you don’t share his love of Christ and the afterlife.  The priest gives Max a new lease on life, and our hero’s soul heals as a result of the serenity that he experiences living, eating, and praying with the benevolent but practical priest.  Of course, this harmonious episode doesn’t last long before Max finds himself catapulted back into the dreadful life that he thought he had put behind him forever.

LeClerc and his dastards show up on a mission in the vicinity of Father Elias’ church. Imagine their surprise when they see their old comrade not only alive and well, but also garbed like a priest.  Max had shared his survival skills to help the people in a nearby village to survive.  Finally, the villains push Max to the breaking point, and he gives them a taste of Armageddon.

The butchered body of Father Elias strewn in a pool of his own blood prompts him to kill all of them.  Max didn’t witness the priest’s death, but LeClerc’s two heartless killers savored the moment before they snuffed him out with extreme prejudice.  Father Elias symbolizes the sacrificial calf that pushes Max beyond the point of no return.

Stuntman turned director Jesse V. Johnson specializes in low-budget, brass-knuckled, straight-to-video actioneers.  He has done some of his best work with British martial arts actor Scott Adkins in “Savage Dog” (2017), “Accident Man” (2018), “The Debt Collector” (2018) and “Triple Threat” (2019).

Seasoned stunt coordinator Luke Lafontaine, with over 100 films to his credit as a stuntman, including “Beowulf,” and fight choreographer Malay Kim of “Kickboxer: Vengeance” stage several impressive combat scenes that will make you flinch.  The violence in “The Mercenary” is nothing short of truculent.  Dominiquie Vandenberg lacks the matinee idol looks of your typical straight-to-video action hero.  Nevertheless, when you watch him in action, he is positively electrifying, despite his slight stature.  Action movie aficionados won’t be disappointed with either “The Mercenary” or Vandenberg.

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