Mayhem tells you everything you need to know in the opening minutes with an energetic voice-over from star Steven Yeun. A virus named ID7 has been sweeping the country. The infected - called "redders," thanks to their bloodshot eyes - lose all inhibitions, giving into their most brazen instincts of lust, violence and rage. "So in a nutshell," Yeun tells us, "basic human dignity takes a sick leave."
Yeun’s Derek Cho works for TSC Consultants, a corporate firm responsible for finding a loophole that got a redder off on a murder charge. This historic court case establishes that people under the influence of ID7 are not considered culpable for their actions - a fact that will come in handy soon.
Delivering this entertainingly filmed backstory so early in the movie works in two ways: first, it sets a cheery, matter-of-fact tone for Mayhem that serves the ensuing violence very well. And second, it gets all of the business out of the way so that when TSC Consultants suffers a company-wide ID7 outbreak, we can just sit back and enjoy the carnage.
Turns out, it’s Derek Cho’s last day on the job. He’s framed for a multi-million dollar screw-up and fired moments before disease control agents quarantine the building and assure inhabitants that the ID7 neutralizer they’re pumping into the vents will become effective in exactly eight hours.
So there’s the set-up: Cho has eight hours of impunity to fight, scheme and kill his way up to the top of the building, where TSC Consultants' board resides, to argue his case and save his job. He’s joined by Samara Weaving’s Melanie Cross, who has her own axe to grind with TSC after they foreclosed on her home. Their opponents are TSC’s big guns, boasting such colorful epithets as The Nine (the board members), The Boss (Steven Brand in a coked-out, scenery-muncher of a role), The Reaper (Dallas Roberts’ maddeningly detached HR agent), The Siren (Caroline Chikezie as The Boss’ manipulative right-hand woman), The Bull (André Eriksen as The Boss’ muscle) and Irene Smythe (Kerry Fox as the cold-hearted executive who foreclosed on Melanie’s house).
Of course we’ve seen this video game-style, fight your way to the top level premise before, in movies like The Raid and Dredd. But Mayhem is just so darn pleasant about it, a gleeful, no-holds-barred riot that somehow never loses its humanity as skulls are sawed and faces pummeled.
Much of that is due to Yeun and Weaving, who manage to temper their performances as virus-infected maniacs with actual personality. They’re so great, as a duo and separately. Yeun gets a real arc in the eight hours we spend with his character, growing from a soulless corporate cog to a hero, if a spectacularly violent one. And Weaving is an absolute delight, stealing every scene with her laidback, gum-smacking, power tools-wielding, Motörhead-loving Melanie. Weaving should become a huge star out of Mayhem; she’s got a tremendously cool presence and incredible comic timing.
She also gets beat to shit in this movie, as does Yeun. There’s a Die Hard-level appreciation of watching these two attractive, well-put-together people slowly devolve into the rumpled, blood-spattered disasters they are by the credits, with each new injury doing nothing to stop or even slow their resolve to reach the top floor of TSC Consultants. Mayhem does have a lot of violence against women in it, but it weirdly feels like true equality, like ID7 is the ultimate leveling of the playing field. And if Melanie’s punched in the face or kicked in the gut, it isn’t played for laughs, but rather as an opportunity to demonstrate how relentlessly tough she is.
It’s one of several examples of the tricky balance that Mayhem successfully strikes. There’s heinous, glorious, insane violence in this movie, oceans of blood, a literal toolbox of weapons used in the most creative and horrifying ways possible. The kills are very fun, and you’ll have a blast with them, but the tone is never nihilistic. Director Joe Lynch does such a great job in those opening minutes of making us care about Derek and Melanie. We root for them and understand their position. We’ve all had jobs where we feel like we have to fight our way to the top, like the only way we can be heard is by screaming - or, in the case of Mayhem, by stabbing. The big bads of TSC are given such villainous, cartoon nicknames because they are cartoons. We’re not supposed to believe in the humanity of these white-collar monsters - all we have to do is believe in Derek and Melanie, and we do.
It makes for a raucously good time, because, like ID7, Mayhem’s premise gives us impunity to enjoy 86 minutes of bloodshed without feeling bad about ourselves afterwards. There’s carnage aplenty, but there’s also growth, and heart, and a very important lesson in there somewhere: don't let your job rob you of your soul. Not even for the corner office.