Review: ‘Mayhem!’ Is a Can’t-Miss Event for Action-Heads

2024 has just begun, and yet we already have one hell of an action movie in Xavier Gens’ Mayhem! (Farang) and a brand-new star ready to show his skills to the world in Nassim Lyes. He portrays Sam, a recently freed convict who attempts to lay low and stay out of trouble by working a stable job in the construction sector but is continuously stalked by a group of drug dealers who try to force him back in, which is likely the cause of his incarceration. After being taunted by one of its members, Sam attempts to evade their grip but accidentally kills one of its key members in a brawl that not only sets the film’s grim tone but tactile aesthetic that takes full advantage of Lyes’ Muay Thai prowess. 

The film then cuts to five years later, with Sam now living with his wife (Loryn Nourway) and daughter (Chananticha Tang-Kwa) in Bang Chan, in the east of Thailand. Sam works in a hotel as a car driver but makes some extra money on the side by competing in Muay Thai fights to buy a piece of land for his wife to open a restaurant. But when the city tells them that Norong (Olivier Gourmet), a crime lord, gave a better offer to them than Sam, he attempts to get his original price back. 

Norong wants Sam to move a piece of luggage for him to the airport, and if completed successfully, he will back out of his offer and let Sam buy the land. Of course, this is all a set up, and Norong gives Sam away to the police as soon as he arrives at the airport. Escaping the trail of the cops, Norong kills Sam’s wife and kidnaps his daughter, with Sam now on a classic revenge-fueled quest to take down the people who crossed him.

Nassim Lyes as “Sam” in Xavier Gens’ MAYHEM! Courtesy of Thanaporn Arkmanon. An IFC Films Release

Mayhem!’s Pacing Brings the Film Down

As explained above, this story is as old as time, but the excuse for any revenge-action film to go all in on intricately choreographed setpieces with an actual action star who knows more than your traditional punches and kicks. However, to get to this part, one has to go through at least fifty minutes of exposition with a few good action flourishes keeping us on edge. The Muay Thai competition is one such sequence that sees Lyes at his most unadulterated — using precise moves to take down his opponent in a rapidly effective fashion. Of course, this will come into play later, but it’s great to see Gens setting his star up in the most bare-bones way possible before he lets himself go in the final act. 

But the film’s glacial pace, moving from France to a jarring five-year-lap to Thailand, doesn’t make the story move as swiftly as it should, and the pieces cohere in a way that makes sense. The France cold open will eventually make sense as viewers progress within the movie, but one has to plod through many scenes of thinly-written exposition that are finely acted, but not as interesting as Gens, and his co-writers Magali RossittoGuillaume Lemans, and Stéphane Cabel think it is. The only sequence that makes this dull intro worthwhile happens near the end of its first act, where Sam meets Norong for the first time. 

There’s a terrible feeling of unease as soon as he appears on the screen, with Norong already establishing himself as a powerful force by making Sam immediately uncomfortable in targeting his wife through his carefully considered choice of words. Gourmet [literally] chews his limited screen time in conveying to audiences everything they need to know about him without a big presence in the film. The restaurant table scene is enough; we all know he’s not what he says he is and shouldn’t be trusted. Yet, Sam easily falls into his trap, and once this begins, the real movie occurs and never lets up. 

Nassim Lyes as “Sam” in Xavier Gens’ MAYHEM! Courtesy of Thanaporn Arkmanon. An IFC Films Release.

Mayhem!’s Action-Filled Climax is a Triumph

Gens has had quite the illustrious career in France and Hollywood working as a genre filmmaker, but he’s never been more confident behind the camera than in Mayhem! Right from its opening action scene, there’s a massive difference in how he approaches action here than in the dreary adaptation of Hitman he brought to the world in 2007. Firstly, his consistently moving camera gives a huge sense of tactility to the combat, with each swift move deftly following its star as he takes down an innumerable number of baddies in an impressively cathartic fashion. 

While Mayhem! isn’t the first film to display Muay Thai as an incredibly cinematic martial art, Gens’ approach to action makes it stand apart from the films of Tony Jaa, such as Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior and The Protector. Gens is increasingly fascinated by the way Muay Thai athletes fight and knows his audiences are hungry to see this realized on screen. He wants to express that fascination through how he shoots it with cinematographer Gilles Porte, but he also wants to let his star guide him along the way. The end result is almost miraculous: a series of perfectly calibrated action elevated by an audaciously kinetic visual approach: the camera perfectly accompanies the star in the film’s environment, and vice-versa.

Consider what I think to be the film’s “centerpiece” sequence, which is set inside an elevator and sees Sam beat a few baddies to a pulp, using only the tight environment around him to overcome the villains. Gens’ visual dexterity to represent extreme claustrophobia aids Sam in attempting to figure out how he will do it. And Lyes is such a skillful martial artist that it doesn’t take long for him to throw one hell of a beatdown, using swords, glass shards, and even his own broken bone to send these people to the lowest depths of Hell. 

As a result, Mayhem! more than makes up for its narrative shortcomings, with a climactic showdown poised to be at the top of everyone’s “Best Fights of 2024” list once the year ends. Gens has never been more confident behind the camera, and it’s great to see him return to a pulpy form of action after playing in the trappings of Horror cinema for quite some time. Here’s hoping the highly likely Mayhem! 2 will elevate the action to even more rowdier heights. 

Mayhem! is now streaming.

Have you watched the movie yet? What did you think? Leave a comment below or message us on X @MoviesWeTexted to share your thoughts.

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