Action fans know Isaac Florentine’s name, and rightly so. He’s one of the best and most prominent DTV action directors out there. His Ninja: Shadow of a Tear and Undisputed III: Redemption are more or less genre classics by this point, but even his lesser-known films such as The Shepard: Border Patrol and Close Range represent a higher quality of b-action filmmaking amidst a sea of generic journeymen.
Florentine’s latest, Acts of Vengeance, is his best film yet. Not his best action film - that's probably still Undisputed III - but his best all-round movie. It’s actually not much of an action film at all, but rather the story of a broken man putting himself together in the name of revenge. Florentine gained most of his acclaim from movies in which he essentially stands back and lets stars and their choreography teams do their thing. Here, he works with a character-driven story, which happens to occasionally dip into ass-kicking.
There is an air of legitimacy around this film that other Florentine efforts lack. Part of that comes from an impressive cast that includes Antonio Banderas, Robert Forster, Paz Vega and Karl Urban, but the film’s slower pace and focus on Banderas’ painful journey force the director to employ a deeper bag of filmmaking tricks than just capturing action well. It's a good looking movie, with few of the cheap hallmarks that usually gives these films away. More than anything, however, Acts of Vengeance benefits from Matt Venne’s above-average script. The plot involves a slick defense attorney whose life is shut down by the murder of his wife and daughter, a story we've seen a million times. Acts of Vengeance takes that template and fills it with a number of novel touches that make the film unique and fun.
For instance, the film illustrates Banderas’ grief with a sidebar in which he gets wasted and somehow becomes a pit fighter, totally untrained and desperate for physical punishment. Once he gets on his path, he decides to take a vow of silence until his family is avenged. At one point, a fucking attack dog refuses to bite him simply because he looks so stoic and badass. The script displays some typical issues - it’s cheesy, often makes no sense, and has a bad guy plot that will leave you scratching your head - but these left-field turns keep it fresh and exciting, even if the broader strokes are well-worn territory.
And then there’s Banderas. Despite his long and wonderful career, it’s sort of fitting that Banderas now find himself in Florentine’s playhouse given that one of his first English lead roles was Robert Rodriguez's wacky actioner Desperado. But while he was hyper and moderately silly in 1995, here he is quiet, measured, aged. Similar to the Jean-Claude Van Damme Florentine employed in The Shepard, this is a guy whose regrets are written all over his face, communicated in ways no script could provide. On top of all that, he’s quite capable in the action department as well. The story doesn’t need him to be Scott Adkins, but Banderas’ fight scenes are well executed - fast and sometimes brutal.
Acts of Vengeance won’t challenge Savage Dog's DTV action film of the year title, but it’s far better than you might expect, if only for its curious approach to a tried and true story. There’s real heart here - aided surely by the tragic death of Florentine’s wife during production - that makes this something more special and genuine than Florentine usually offers. The film is out now for all to see, and I highly recommend that you do.