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D: Joe Lynch / 87m

Cast: Steven Yeun, Samara Weaving, Steven Brand, Caroline Chikezie, Kerry Fox, Dallas Roberts, Mark Frost, Claire Dellamar, André Eriksen, Nikola Kent, Lucy Chappell, Olja Hrustic

Multi-hyphenate Joe Lynch has come a long way since Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (2007), his debut as a director. Knights of Badassdom (2013) was a mess that at least confirmed Lynch had promise (if he had the right material to work with), while Everly (2014) was an over-the-top action fest that showed Lynch was indeed learning his craft, and becoming increasingly more confident. And now, with his latest movie, Lynch  displays an even greater confidence, and makes his most polished feature so far. It’s a darkly humorous, splatter-infused second cousin to The Belko Experiment (2016), but where that was a terrible attempt at creating an old-fashioned exploitation flick, Mayhem is an old-fashioned exploitation flick, and one that is far more successful in both its aims and its achievements.

The McGuffin of the movie is a virus, the ID7 Strain, a nasty little bugger that causes people to throw caution, responsibility and morality out of the window, and indulge in whatever hidden desires they’ve held back from carrying out in the past. ID7 means self-control is anathema to the infected, and be it lust, greed, violence, or a mix of all three, those afflicted will ignore any calls for restraint. Thankfully, an antidote has been found, but the company that created the virus, Towers & Smythe Consulting, is about to fall victim to a very bad case of schadenfreude: their corporate headquarters is about to be put into quarantine because of an outbreak in the building. It will take eight hours for the antidote to reverse the effects of the virus; until then it’s every man and woman for themselves. Two of the infected – executive Derek Cho (Yeun), who has been set up as a patsy for one of his colleagues’ malpractice and then fired, and Melanie Cross (Weaving), a victim of one of T&SC’s sharp practices – find themselves teaming up and using a legal loophole (no one affected by the virus can be arrested or tried for any crimes they commit while suffering from ID7) to fight their way to the top floor and “persuade” the company’s board of directors to give Derek his job back, and allow Melanie to keep her home.

Of course, the path to the top floor is paved with numerous obstacles and murderous intentions, as the company’s head honcho, coke-snorting, golf club-wielding John Towers (Brand), takes offence to Derek wanting his job back, and takes even further offence when Derek starts leaking company secrets. With both Derek and Towers determined to use the eight hour quarantine period to advance their own agendas, the stage is set for a bloody boardroom showdown and a number of violent “dismissals” along the way. As Derek and Melanie fight their way up the building using an assortment of tools including a nail gun and a wrench, they find themselves facing the likes of the Reaper (Roberts), an HR executive who does the firing, the Siren (Chikezie), Derek’s rival and the colleague who got him fired, and the Bull (Eriksen), Towers’ head of security.

It’s all good, propulsive stuff, violent and preposterous, clever and absurd, and bearing absolutely no resemblance to anything that’s even remotely credible – at any stage. By creating the legal loophole whereby anything goes and no one is responsible for their actions (a la The Purge series), Mayhem ensures that any criticism of what takes place is fruitless, and that only the more extreme moments, such as when Derek is stabbed through the hand with a pair of scissors and shrugs it off for the rest of the movie, can be called into question. With Lynch and co given free rein thanks to Matias Caruso’s knowing screenplay, the movie embraces its exploitation roots and allows itself to throw narrative caution to the wind in its efforts to provide thrills, gore, action, comedy, and blunt force drama. There’s enough blood spilt here to keep the cleaners mopping up for days. And Lynch orchestrates it all with the glee of someone getting to play at being sadistic while also keeping their tongue firmly in their cheek. The violence may be bloody and raw on occasion, but it’s leavened by a cruel sense of humour at the same time, and there are moments when the viewer won’t know whether to wince or laugh or both.

There’s also a fair and pleasing dose of corporate satire at play here, as the script pokes fun at the culture of ladder climbing at all costs that exists in modern US buinesses (and elsewhere in the world, no doubt). Derek is seen when he first comes to work for T&SC and he’s a naïve, hopeful individual whose experiences soon make him more callous and dismissive of others. He retains an innate sense of justice but outwardly and for the most part he’s just as much a jerk as the rest of his colleagues. Yuen plays him to perfection, channelling Derek’s anger at being fired and using it as a way to control the virus in his system. Likewise, Weaving does the same with Melanie, only allowing her to cut loose when needing to take someone down (and/or out). Both actors are clearly having fun with their roles and this transfers itself well to the viewer, who will be on their side and willing them on at every turn. Against this, Brand is a terrific villain: vain, arrogant, and getting through mounds of cocaine like a pig in a trough.

Elsewhere, Fox provides another exemplary portrayal as the Smythe in T&SC, there’s a lovely moment where Derek and Melanie pause to debate the merits of the Dave Matthews Band, and viewers should keep one eye focused on what’s going on in the background in certain scenes. The movie has a good pace, takes an adequate amount of time to introduce its central characters, maintains a good narrative structure, mounts several good action scenes, includes several unexpected pop culture references, and makes the very most of its limited budget. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s far better than most exploitation flicks out there these days and it’s immensely likeable, with strong characters and Lynch’s (by now) trademark rock ‘n’ roll sensibility urging it along. For fans of this sort of thing it will feel like a welcome breath of fresh air, and for others it should prove to be far more enjoyable than expected. Either way, this is a movie whose spiky energy should be welcomed and applauded.

Rating: 8/10 – with several plusses – Yuen in a starring role and corporate culture being skewered left, right and centre (to name just a couple) – Mayhem sets out its stall early on in a bravura pre-credits scene, and doesn’t let up once the ID7 Strain makes its presence felt; a popcorn movie it may be, but this has much more than that to recommend it, and by confidently mixing its genres, makes itself all the more praiseworthy, and well worth seeking out.