Thursday night is movie night with my homies. We get together online and watch B-grade action flicks and horror movies. Beer and bawdy humor are de rigueur, of course. One night we put on a low-budget actioner with a goofy title, Avengement. We thought it’d be cheesy. Have a good laugh. Probably talk through the whole thing. Five minutes in, though, we went silent. Pins were afraid to drop. Finally, one of us managed to break the impromptu covenant of silence, “Wait, is this actually gonna be good?”
For weeks after, we’d watch movie after another from Jesse V. Johnson, Avengement’s director and co-writer. What we found was a dude who churned out solid, direct to video (or video on demand or whatever it’s called these days) pictures on a regular basis. Better, in many cases, than some of the big-budget stuff we get in theaters.
Now he’s back with a new one, Hell Hath No Fury, a low-budget WWII actioner that will have a run in theaters. And while it’s probably my least favorite of his movies, it’s easily his most ambitious and heartfelt. It just takes until the last few frames to figure that out.
But don’t get me wrong, heartfelt or not, this is still definitely a violent action picture with more than enough graphic shootings and stabbings to satiate even the wildest midnight movie audiences. It’s also definitely a lower budget movie, mostly taking place on one outdoor set, a forgotten graveyard in recently liberated France, 1944 (with Belarus subbing for La France). Johnson, though, as usual, squeezes quite a bit out of his meager means, including a not-terrible bombing sequence near the film’s end.
The film’s title, of course, comes from the famous line written by the bard himself, William Shakespeare, but here it refers to Marie (Nina Bergman), a French woman romancing an SS officer, Von Bruckner (Daniel Bernhardt), who has in his possession a tiny fortune of Nazi gold. She says she’s part of the resistance, deep undercover to get at that gold, but is she? BTW, I was lying a few sentences ago. Shakespeare didn’t come up with that titular line. It was William Congreve and even then, it’s a paraphrasing of a line from his play, The Mourning Bride. (Now let’s all pretend I knew that off the top of my head…) See, much of Hell Hath No Fury revolves around obfuscation and lies. Who’s telling the truth? Who can be trusted?
But I gotta be honest. For much of the movie, I just didn’t care.
Director Johnson and writers Katharine Lee McEwan clearly make their narrative choices on purpose, but they threw me off for most of the movie. You see, once it’s done, the story is quite simple, but in an understandable effort to generate drama, the movie drops you into the main setup without much, err, setup. The intent is to make the mystery of the situation pique your interest, but it just left me cold. I didn’t care about these people. All of them seemed like jerks.
The movie picks up three years after Marie’s (maybe fake?) romance. France has been liberated by the Allied forces and the formerly oppressed take out their anger and frustration on Nazi collaborators including Marie, whose resistance bona fides remain unproven. They crudely shave her hair and draw a swastika on her forehead to mark her as a traitor. But suddenly, the story shifts gears and we’re whisked away to the film’s main location with Marie, bag over her head, in the back of a military Jeep surrounded by four American soldiers, entering a graveyard, looking for gold.
I don’t know if it’s the film’s budget that’s to blame for this major narrative shortcut, but an important catalyst that explains Marie’s motivation for helping these Americans is revealed almost as an afterthought, spoken rather than shown. It threw me off. “Why’s she’s going along with this?” I kept asking myself. The answer is actually obvious, but without seeing it, it’s not given enough weight to stick.
And some of the obfuscation is cheap, like a line that’s simply omitted from the opening scenes just to keep us confused until it is revealed in more detail late in a flashback sequence.
But not everything is dire here. Johnson knows how to direct an action sequence, and whether out of necessity or simply by choice (Imma go with choice), there’s a very earthy, analog feel to the film’s action. When people get shot, giant squibs burst forth from the actors, with bloodletting almost as ludicrous as in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The violence feels, well, violent.
I also like that when people spoke German, they actually spoke real German with the proper accent. And when people spoke French, they (I think) actually spoke French. The Americans, though, speak with atrocious southern accents. “Let’s get into the Jee-ahp,” or something equally ludicrous is drawled at one point. Whatever, it amused me at least.
But in the end, ridiculous Southern acc-unts or not, it all comes together in literally the very last minutes of the movie. What I thought was a nihilistic exercise in people-all-suck, turned into something that was touching. “Oh, that’s where has was going with this,” I sighed with relief as the credits ran. (Clearly, I talk to myself a lot.)
So, yeah, Jesse V. Johnson hasn’t bested his Avengement with this latest venture, but he proves once again to be a resilient and talented director who is clearly invested in his work. I won’t insist you see this in theaters when it comes out on November 5th but give it a look on VOD when it begins streaming November 9th.
But afterward, definitely give Avengement a watch too, will ya?