"Can you look after yourself?"
This question is being posed to "French", played by Scott Adkins (UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING) by a local loan shark. You see, French has landed on hard times. He's a martial artist with his own school but attendance has dried up along with his finances. He needs employment badly to save his school and his home. So, he has transitioned to being a low-level enforcer and bagman for this loan shark as a way to turn things around with the best tools he has at his disposal: his fighting prowess.
The loan shark teams French up with "Sue", played with a boozy charm by Louis Mandylor (MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING) for a two day run of debt collecting and roughing up deadbeats. When they get pulled to track down an enemy of a local gangster, played by Tony Todd (CANDYMAN), the situation goes from bad to worse for French as every bit of his skill (and his rapidly diminishing morality) are put to the test.
This is the setup for THE DEBT COLLECTOR, the latest collaboration between Adkins and low budget action film auteur Jesse V. Johnson (SAVAGE DOG). The pair has recently struck up a partnership that resulted in them turning out multiple low budget films in the last year of a surprisingly high quality. This film is no exception. It's remarkable what the pair have been able to accomplish within the confines of direct to video filmmaking.
I am truly baffled by the fact that Adkins is not a massive movie star yet. He is able to portray a range of emotional honesty that puts his action forefathers to shame, while also being an incredibly gifted martial artist and physical performer. He can flip and tumble with ease and still throw blows that look like they have real force behind them. It's easy to see why he is often called in to add flair to larger films, like THE EXPENDABLES 2, DR. STRANGE, and the up-coming IP MAN 4.
It'd be easy for this film to just be a showcase for Adkins but Mandylor stands tall next to Adkins as French's grizzled and burnt out guide through this new shady world he finds himself in. The two have a genuine chemistry that makes every scene they play off each other (which is nearly whole film) feel fun and breezy. He quips and banters with French in a way that makes his broken down enforcer persona actually boyishly charming instead of the sad sack you might expect when the character is introduced, sleeping off a hangover in his car. Mandylor also shows himself to be no slouch in the action apartment either. A Muay Thai practitioner in real life, Mandylor enters every fight scene with a bruising boxing style that is a nice, natural counterpoint to Adkin's flashier offense.
Speaking of the action in the film, fight choreographer Luke Lafontaine (BLOOD AND BONE) does a stellar job of making the numerous action scenes all feel unique, dynamic, and most importantly exciting. There's so much good fight choreography in the film that it's honestly a bit of a let down when our leads pick up guns at the end for the final, bloody confrontation. On the plus side though, there is not a trace of CGI blood to be found in the film. When the bullets start flying, its squibs and other classic effects that illustrate the carnage.
Despite a limited budget, THE DEBT COLLECTOR looks great, mostly. Johnson uses natural light and graceful camera moves on numerous scenes, like the 3 on 1 confrontation that opens the film, to give the THE DEBT COLLECTOR a distinct, moody look that separates it from its B-movie brethren. It's only occasionally when the film transitions to an obvious set, like the hallway of an apartment building, that the seams begin to show and even then it's easily overlooked by all the good aspects on display.
What is harder to overlook is that the story moves from being fun, almost vignette-style scenes of the pair going about their duties to a film that feels somewhat like the glut of Tarantino-style knock-off films, that were so prevalent in the late1990s, once Tony Todd's crime boss character is introduced. The film feels less fresh from this point on and it wraps up in a needlessly convoluted way that tries to apply a deeper meaning to the film that is just not that successful, even with the support of some bizarre transition shots sprinkled throughout the film whose meaning only become clear within the context of the film's final scene.
Despite those shortcomings though, what has stayed with me after the film ended was the excellent fight choreography, easy chemistry of the leads, and the energetic direction of Jesse V. Johnson. That is all more than enough to warrant a recommendation to anyone who enjoys a solid, no-frills action film.
THE DEBT COLLECTOR is in limited theatrical release and on VOD/DVD starting June 5th.