Ahh, Christmas time – a festive season of peace, love, and goodwill extended to everyone you spent the rest of the year flipping off. Families congregate under chintzy decorations and pretend to tolerate one another over extravagant feasts, Die Hard loops endlessly on an impulsively-purchased 4K TV, and everyone represses all their inner rage that’s been mounting since the last election and forces some good cheer on a holiday that’s devolved into a cynical capitalistic cash-grab.
Seems like a good a time as any to discuss Mayhem – no, silly reader, not the state of Warner Bros’s accounting department following Justice League’s opening weekend; I’m talking about the new action-horror-comedy extravaganza by world-famous director (reads off cue card) Joe Lynch. Since premiering at Cannes back in May it’s been heralded by critics as Office Space meets The Purge, and since viewing it myself I’d personally add the endorsement ‘on cocaine’ to fully capture its spirit.
Had it not been for a chance perusal through my Flixster app this wonderful gem would have passed unnoticed this year, and that would have been a terrible shame because I haven’t been this in love with a crazy Indie film since Super. It’s so rare that a story delivers so spectacularly on everything it promises, which in this case was a blunt character tale amplified by gratuitous death, blood, and, well, mayhem.
Glenn from The Walking Dead stars as Derek Cho, a rising star at Towers & Smythe Consulting, a firm so evil it rivals the Umbrella Corporation, Weyland-Yutani, Omni Consumer Products, and Cyberdyne Systems combined in the categories of cut-throat work environments and gleeful disregard for human decency. When a shady client file surfaces that threatens to cost TSC millions, Cho is blatantly scapegoated and terminated just moments before a notorious rage virus – monikered “Red Eye” – breaks out in the corporate high-rise. Don’t worry though, this virus doesn’t kill – it merely amplifies its hosts’ most primal impulses (rage, lust, blind fanboy devotion to Fight Club, etc.), which in turn can lead them to killing one another. Cue archive footage of Rodney Dangerfield quipping “I’ve heard of a hostile work environment, but this is ridiculous!”
The beauty of the Red Eye virus (or horror, depending on which end of the swinging machete you’re on) is that no one is actually liable for their actions while under its influence, not even murder, in a legal precedent set by none other than Towers & Smythe following a previous outbreak. That’s right – we’re not witnessing the first ever outbreak of Red Eye here, a rather unique detail of the film’s world-building. Something like 1000 cases are reported annually and combatted with vaccines that are relatively simple to administer, which is a neat subversion of the ‘Patient Zero’ formula of most zombie movies. Imagine a world where zombie outbreaks were a health nuisance scarcely more annoying than chicken pox, diarrhea, or drunken uncles – nothing a doctor’s note, some tomato soup, and a can of pepper spray couldn’t cure.
Anyway, the film’s meat and potatoes are served up when a SWAT team quarantines the high-rise and implores everyone inside to remain calm, assuring them that the cure has been pumped into the vents and will restore normality in eight hours. Cho, however, decides that he will not remain calm. By his frenzied reckoning he has an eight-hour window to capitalize on a perfectly legal loophole, which means he’s headed to the top floor to have a few words with the CEO who threw him under the bus – a few words that might play out like “please hold still while I murder you with these power tools.”
Oh, in case you were wondering, yes – this is a family film.
Before I delve into how surprisingly great this film was, I will forewarn both my loyal readers that spoilers abound in plenteousness, though this is probably a needless disclaimer because there’s little across Mayhem’s narrative chart to actually spoil. While I do hold that the straightforward stories are often the most effective ones, the story in Mayhem is comparable to a bullet that’s fired from a pistol that passes through a few straw dummies before sinking squarely into the center of its intended target. That is to say, nothing outside the realm of expectation for a typical action flick happens and there are no twists or turns to truly surprise the viewer. In this case, at least, a ‘Point A to Point B’ plot works because Mayhem’s objective isn’t to weave a complex monomyth – it’s to showcase how scissors can be used as lethal weapons (as my little brother can surely attest from our childhood days when Mario Kart got too real).
There are some moderate themes present of corporate integrity and tensions that arise from inner-office politics that only border on satire, but sadly aren’t honed to the precision they’d be under the direction of, say, Paul Verhoeven in his prime (as an aside, if Verhoeven ever scripted and directed a big-screen adaptation of Dilbert, it would probably look something like this).
So the plot is as blunt as a ball-peen hammer, occupying the overlapping region of a venn diagram consisting of Revenge Tale, Quest for Vigilante Justice, and Corporate Murder-Fantasy. Cho has eight hours to reach the top floor to either ream out his former boss verbally or ream into his head with a power drill, and the only obstacles he faces are the ‘boss fights’ with TSC’s senior staffers and elevators that require key cards and passcodes. In this vein Mayhem is a rare film that would translate seamlessly into a video game – a video game that, naturally, should fall under the LEGO banner.
LEGO Mayhem. Just think about it.
Character offers a bit more to chew on than Plot, and it all hinges on Cho. Honestly, I had my doubts about Yeun as a leading man because Glenn was easily The Walking Dead’s blandest character (which I realize is sort of like saying a two-by-four has less personality than an unpainted fence), but based on his performance here it’s evident AMC was squandering his potential. In the film’s opening moments he narrates that he’s become jaded by TSC’s corruption, greed, and unethical conduct, and that’s even before he’s canned and afflicted with Red Eye. He confesses pangs of conscience over gradually sacrificing his soul for TSC while still professing a desire for the corner office on the top floor. He craves the high life, but is haunted by the things he must do (and has already done) to climb the corporate ladder. He’s conflicted, which is a mark of compelling characterization – just ask The Hulk.
This conflict is further demonstrated through Cho’s actions, in faithful adherence to the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule of storytelling. We observe him intervening when a pretty young secretary is being verbally abused by a colleague, but then in the very next scene snap at his own assistant over the disappearance of his favourite coffee mug. He also coldly refuses to aid co-star Not-Margot Robbie with her defaulting mortgage, only to team up with her after the outbreak and gradually come to identify with her plight. So he’s a bit of a jerk initially, but he has his limits and ultimately does desire to stand up to injustice, with Red Eye being the catalyst for personal change. In the end, he finds his humanity through acts of grotesque inhumanity. See kids? Violence is not only good, it’s good for you.
While it’s a bit of a reach to expect Joe and Jane Viewer to root for a protagonist on a psychotic killing spree, a few carefully-arranged elements help us stay planted in Cho’s corner. First, when your protagonist exhibits no qualms whatsoever over murdering people, it helps if those people are malicious jackasses – and at Towers & Smythe, everyone fits this profile. A neat little trick I learned in screenwriting school for writing a ‘bad guy’ protagonist (Tony Soprano being a prime example), is to surround him with supporting characters that are exponentially worse. In doing so you can still garner viewer sympathy for this villainous hero because comparatively, he’s not the worst character on the screen. Second, it helps to give said protagonist a redeeming element or two, or at least some semblance of inner turmoil to keep him relatable and interesting. At the very least, have him pet a cat Vito Corleone-style to show he’s not a total monster. Mayhem uses these tricks effectively, even if they are a tad on the nose. Cho may be temperamental, but he’s at least guilt-ridden; he may kill people through the course of the film, but they’re all terrible corporate sellouts without souls. So, you know, that makes everything fine.
Mayhem also banks on the demented wish fulfillment angle to keep viewers invested throughout the carnage. After all, haven’t we all been shackled to terrible job that we wanted to burn to the ground? Wouldn’t we all love to let off a little steam after a bad day at the office? Maybe set a trash fire or two or hurl some computer towers through a window or plant some staples into the IT guy’s forehead? We live in tense, aggressive times, and sometimes it’s refreshing to have a film tap into that tension and pander to our primal thirst for blood and carnage. I mean, we’ve all want to kill someone at least once, right?
In truth, it is the action and violence that fill the cornucopia that is this arrangement’s centerpiece – the sort that have become staples of Tarantino’s cinematic canon. Normally when these minor elements overshadow the fundamental pillars of Plot and Character they tend to nullify Story, reducing it to mere exhibitionism and actually driving a wedge between the narrative and the viewer (case in point, think back to the last Transformers movie you saw and try to recall what it was actually about). But with this film the action and violence are sort of the whole point and actually prop up the story. That’s right – I’ve found a film that succeeded based on the shock value and spectacle where Plot and Character lacked depth, an anomaly that might be the cinematic equivalent of a virgin albino unicorn with heterochromia.
To close, Mayhem was a wild ride that suffered no pretensions of being anything deeper than a schlock blood-fest. Its narrative simplicity and solid performance by Yeun gave it a sort of candid charm, especially at its silliest moments, making it a worthy addition to the great ‘tower’ premises alongside Die Hard, The Raid: Redemption, and Dredd. It harkens back to a simpler time in cinema – a time when the action genre was fun and relatively lighthearted, a time when Schwarzenegger brought a delightful sense of ridiculousness to the silver screen, a time when Tarantino made spectacle memorable, and a time when grisly murders could slip past the MPAA with relative ease.
If that’s not enough to sell you, there’s always the moral of the story – don’t compromise your integrity… but if you find that happening, just kill your boss.