During the early '80s – and even before that, with his screenplay for Hickey & Boggs ('72) – Walter Hill cemented the buddy action picture formula (that Shane Black would take and transmute, using his own Bronx Chatty Cathy style). Hard Times ('75), 48 Hrs. ('82), Streets of Fire ('84), Red Heat ('87); all of these films contain a variation of the team-up technique, told with a bluntly poetic macho flair, pairing two tough mothers for a mission they may not walk away from. They're some of era's defining pieces of cinematic pulp, yet the form has fallen somewhat by the wayside (The Nice Guys ['16] notwithstanding), even in the DTV arena.
Now, Jesse V. Johnson is continuing his current hot streak with action star Scott Adkins – as they crafted the gory period piece Savage Dog ('17) and admirably goofy Guy Ritchie homage Accident Man ('18) together – delivering the Redbox iteration of Hill's violent male bonding. The Debt Collector is a smash 'em up that's incredibly well structured, as Johnson (who penned the script with Accident Man's Stu Small) sends broke martial arts teacher French (Adkins) on a series of mafia ledger stops as a means to make ends meet. But local don Tommy (Vladimir Kulich) doesn't like his dogs working alone, and pairs French up with a meat-headed former boxing boy named Sue (Louis Mandylor). Together in a vintage Cutlass, they’re a regular pair of palookas, just trying to get through a kneecapping weekend without killing each other.
With each collection comes a new arena in which to stage a brutal set piece. In the suburbs, French and Sue chase a pair of gun-toting white boys across green lawns, before Adkins has to literally try and punch one of the college kids out of a moving car (while hanging through the driver's side window, no less). A tiny office becomes a veritable octagon, as a deadbeat calls on his towering goons to toss French through the rather flimsy-looking plaster walls. A street fight involves various handheld weapons – pipes, chains, bats, etc. – while drenched in the golden California sun. Johnson exploits each environment to mix the action up, keeping his movie visually engaging at all times. Narratively, it's a cleverly simple but effective means of not only building momentum, but also showcasing both Adkins and Mandylor's rather impressive capacities for violence.
In Savage Dog, Johnson and Adkins tossed splatter levels of gore into their multiple fisticuffs and gun battles, and Accident Man staged them in a comic book anti-reality. Yet The Debt Collector is all about the physical sensation of flesh pounding flesh. Each standoff hurts, as Adkins takes as much physical punishment as he dishes out, and cinematographer Jonathan Hall (MTV's Teen Wolf series) doesn't flinch as he keeps the camera steady and trained on each impact. The cutting – from Savage Dog and Accident Man editor Matthew Loretz – amplifies each blow, as it holds the frame just an extra second longer, letting us feel every punch, kick and smash. The Debt Collector abuses its performers' bodies with reckless abandon, reminding longtime fans of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning ('12) of that movie’s commitment to bruising danger.
Accident Man saw Adkins discovering his inner Jason Statham, and The Debt Collector extends that trend, letting the martial arts master kick the shit out his targets while wearing a cheap suit, before milking his British brogue for a rather sizable amount of charm. Nevertheless, as wonderful as Adkins’ newfound sense of humor is – adding a liveliness that was somewhat absent in his earlier Isaac Florentine team ups (Close Range ['15] instantly coming to mind) – Mandylor is doing a really impressive combination of Michael Paré and Mickey Rourke. His mumbly, drunken doorman delivery is note-perfect, and when he's asked to actually carry a scene with a tragic expository monologue (containing his character’s rather melancholy back-story), it’s a rare moment of really good acting for this sort of New Wave Cannon Films fodder.
Johnson clearly knows what sort of filmic sandbox he's playing in, as he even casts Paré – who, between this and Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, is enjoying quite the 2018 B-Movie resurgence – in a small supporting role as the hood who gets French introduced into the leg-breaking game. Of course, The Debt Collector has to steady itself via a moral center (when the guys take on a shaky proposition from a brutish gangster [Tony Todd] looking for revenge on an ex-lover), but Johnson does well to not weigh the movie down with any sort of grand "lessons". Instead, he opts to deliver a savage Tony Scott impersonation during the film's final reel, climaxing with a smoky, close quarters shootout that would make that sadly deceased action auteur smile. In short, The Debt Collector isn't just a good B-Movie, but also a welcome throw back from guys clearly in love with their favorite genre's past titans. We should all hope they keep working together for a long while.
The Debt Collector is available now on DVD and VOD.