By James Kenney. Originally published at Whatchareading.com
Two recent “Stealth Cinema” entries leave little recourse for someone who takes this stuff seriously but to pit them against each other in a cage fight. Neither is a delicate fable of first love and unicorns, or a Roberto Rosellini documentary-style exploration of the frailty of the human condition. Both deal with miscarriages of justice that must be dealt with in vigilante fashion, which is pretty cool, if kind of hard to make new as a subject. Acts of Violence, just out on Blu ray and DVD from Lionsgate, is the latest Bruce Willis grab-the-cash-and-run release, while Acts of Vengeance is the latest Antonio Banderas grab-the-cash-and-run release, also out from Lionsgate on Blu Ray and DVD! So before you invest 180 minutes of your life watching both of our aging movie stars beat up some bad guys in the name of vengeance and violence, I, with serious resolve, will make them compete for your entertainment dollar!
Title: Acts of Violence is so prosaic I have to smile. It’s as if they couldn’t think of a title, and asked themselves “what does anyone really want from a movie like this, anyway?” The title is the answer. Acts of Vengeance sounds a bit less cynical, but maybe it’s really just coy. “Acts of Vengeance,” in this case, simply involve violence anyway.
Violence Director: Brett Donowho. Relatively obscure, Donowho seems like an affable, earnest guy on Violence’s DVD commentary track (saying “Hi Mom!” at the beginning, assuming that she might be the only one listening). His direction is straight-to-video strong, bringing in a professional looking production on a fifteen day shoot. However, this means there’s a lot of steady cam and undistinguished staging, with little time for thoughtful composition or nuanced emoting (despite Donowho’s professed interest to create a “drama with action” as opposed to an action flick).
Vengeance Director: Isaac Florentine. This guy is beloved by respected action fans like Outlaw Vern for his work on Scott Adkins films like Ninja and Ninja 2, as well as some Undisputed sequels (you know, sequels to that Walter Hill prison fight film few people saw in the first place). I’ve seen none of Florentine’s most fabled work, having seen only this and a really bad Florentine Christian Slater “thriller” Assassin’s Bullet. All I remember about that one at this point is that Donald Sutherland showed up for a scene or two and there was lots of footage of belly dancing. His direction here is equally indifferent – the film, shot in Bulgaria, doesn’t really pass for the U.S., or for Bulgaria for that matter, and rather sloppily makes no convincing effort to be located anywhere. For a guy that has been hyped quite a bit online, I see little of distinction in Florentine’s direction in either show. I guess the pacing is O.K., but he makes little effort to explain how Banderas goes from loudmouth lawyer to unstoppable killing machine in this one. Banderas just takes a vow of silence after undergoing exquisite distress and becomes all bad-ass.
Plot: Both have plenty of vengeance and violence, if that’s your thing. Vengeance has the intriguing trope of Banderas, a big-mouthed lawyer, taking a vow of silence as he sets out on avenging his wife and daughters’ murder. He does lots of voice-over, however, so the film doesn’t really have to stretch very hard to make its silent protagonist work. Whenever it needs something explained, he starts yammering in narrator mode. Violence gets a bit overstuffed as it deals with three brothers all working to save the wife of the youngest one’s wife, who has been taken captive by sex traffickers. As Willis isn’t even the lead, it gets even more overstuffed when he shows up as a sympathetic cop to help our angry and vengeful — make that violent– leads
Star Power: Antonio Banderas puts effort into Vengeance. This can go awry, like in Simon West’s Salt, where he minces and prances as an Axl Rose wannabe in a singularly unfunny action comedy, but in recent stealth cinema efforts Vengeance, Black Butterfly and Security he shows up and makes an effort, and actually stars in the damn thing. Only in this year’s Bullethead does he pull the show-up-for-one-day’s-shooting guest star shtick, and in that one they hired other real actors and stars for the leads (Adrien Brody and John Malkovich), so it’s all cool.
Acts of Violence has Willis showing up intermittently as he does in Precious Cargo, Fire with Fire, The Prince and all sorts of recent already-forgotten low-budget action flicks.. The actual lead, Cole Hauser, is competent but not particularly memorable. Star Power round goes to Vengeance, which coughs up Paz Vega and Robert Forster in some key supporting parts, while Violence can only supply Mike Epps as a villain.
Action: Well, they both have plenty of action. It’s competently staged and instantly forgettable in both.
Distributor. Both are from Lionsgate, my favorite low-budget stealth cinema distributor. If they felt O.K. releasing two films with interchangeable titles within two months of each other, who am I to complain?
Locations: Violence was filmed in Cleveland, which doesn’t look that much different from Atlanta and Louisiana and all the other non-union low-budget locales where Willis and others go to make quick change on fairly non-descript action movies. Vengeance was shot in Bulgaria, and I always enjoy looking at the Bulgarian (or Romanian) locations so often used these days and seeing which directors do a better job of faking the U.S. than others. But that’s a personal peccadillo and you likely do not share this interest.
Results: Ahh, who cares? If you want comic-book mayhem, either one supplies it. If you want star power, Vengeance at least has its star on screen for the duration, whereas Willis barely shows up in Violence. But Violence is a somewhat better film. Donowho wants to please, while Florentine’s concentration seems to fall apart and he goes through the motions. If you are in the mood tonight is for refried beans, go for Violence.