Murder on the ‘Mayhem’ Express

by Warren Cantrell on November 9, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Minor Rock Fist Up]

An amusing trifle that does just enough to accomplish what it sets out to do, Mayhem, opening at Screenland at Tapcade Friday, is the cinematic equivalent of fast food. Sure, it might not be good for you, and you’re probably not going to brag about the experience, but for what it is, it’s sufficient and entirely enjoyable in the moment.

An ultraviolent yarn about a rage-inducing plague confined to a corporate office tower, the film is like Office Space crossed with Bruce Lee’s The Game of Death (the one with Kareem). And while the cartoonish sensibilities of Mayhem clash with its overall message (a surprisingly earnest lesson in remaining true to one’s self), the tone, pacing, and commitment of the cast sell the thing.

Steven Yeun plays Derek, a young attorney clawing his way up the corporate ladder at a prestigious law group. Derek’s firm has recently made a name for itself by representing a client accused of a grisly murder, successfully arguing that since the man was infected with a newly unleashed rage-virus, he was not responsible for his actions. This virus suppresses all a person’s inhibitions and stokes the anger fires of the brain, compelling all those infected to act out on their worst impulses. The illness allows an infected individual to scream, fight, and fuck to their heart’s content, and now has the legal protection of a court verdict forgiving any actions undertaken during an outbreak.

Derek was integral to his firm’s victory in this matter, and when the film opens, he’s an exhausted middle-management stooge with just enough power to feel important, but not nearly enough juice to put him amongst the company’s decision-makers. He’s in the middle of executing the everyday business of explaining some eviction paperwork a woman, Melanie (Samara Weaving), when he and everyone in his building come down with the aforementioned rage virus. This comes at a tough time for Derek, who learns that he’s being railroaded by his bosses and scapegoat-fired that very same afternoon. As Derek is being led out of the building, banker box in his arms, everyone realizes that they have been quarantined in the building, which leads to an unholy reckoning of biblical proportions.

Flushed with an insatiable blood lust that can be quenched only by the murder of the executives that so cruelly dismissed him, Derek resolves to work his way up the corporate tower (literally), taking his revenge on everyone that wronged him. Along the way, he teams up with Melanie, who is also looking for some vengeance, and the pair set off on a gruesome murder parade that would make Sam Raimi blush. Director Joe Lynch makes great use of common utility items like nail guns, wrenches, and ice picks to see his action through, and crafts bloody fight scenes for Derek and Melanie that are both fun and creative.

The universe Mayhem exists in is on the wrong side of believable, however, and while an audience might go along with the conceit of the virus, anyone who has worked in a corporate environment (especially legal) is going to laugh at the cartoonish presentation of this world. Working for attorneys in a corporate culture steeped in a “me first” ethos devoid of basic human decency is indeed savage, but not in the way it is presented here. The executives are exaggerated cartoons of big-business boogey-men, and side-steps the very real banality of evil that exists in professional cultures such as these. And while this portrayal is appropriately dialed up to 11, just like everything else in Mayhem, it doesn’t ring true in a way that might have connected this world to something recognizable to the average corporate-peon viewer (a-la Office Space).

Even so, that same viewer might not really care, as it allows them to vicariously live through a protagonist that gets to stab their HR director with scissors, fight their CEO with brass knuckles, and shoot roofing nails at coworkers that annoy them. This alone makes the whole exercise worth the modest 86 minute runtime, and is helped by strong turns by both Yeun and Weaving. What’s more, Steven Brand ably chews some scenery as the big-bad of Mayhem, as does the always-magnificent Caroline Chikezie as the firm’s Operations Manager.

A little silly at times, to be sure, yet Mayhem goes all-in with its premise and the action it dials up for the audience. Joe Lynch had a dubious feature debut with 2013’s Knights of Badassdom, a film he disowned after the studio took it out of his hands and re-edited the thing. While that is an inexcusable violation for any director, one can see where a meddling suit might think a few tweaks could make a decent movie by Lynch spectacular. Although it certainly wouldn’t suit Mayhem or Lynch to impose similar treatment this time around, there is a missing element, here: something a writing or producing partner might be able to fix.

Is Mayhem fast-food cinema? Sure. It is decent insofar as the meat is top notch, the cheese is fresh, and the bun is just crispy enough to give the illusion of a classy meal. Yes, this is a cheeseburger, but who the hell ever complained about eating a fucking cheeseburger? In a season of Oscar-worthy fine dining, give yourself a break and eat some fast food: your palate will thank you.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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