Avengement and Jesse V. Johnson's Best Films
Jesse V. Johnson is a longtime stuntman and is recognised now as a very busy filmmaker, crafting all manner of character-driven stories with heart, soul and no shortage of visceral action at the core. To coincide with perhaps his boldest, most uncompromising work to date in Avengement (teaming up again with British action star Scott Adkins), I caught up with Jesse.
For this, I asked about some of my personal picks for his best work, to which he shared some thoughts and reflections. By the way, I’m definitely a fan of movies like Pit Fighter and The Butcher, absent from this list, but this was simply a list of choice cuts I came up with.
Full disclaimer: I’m a friend of Jesse’s and in fact I interviewed him at length for my original book, Life of Action, but I’ve been a fan a lot longer, so my interest in his work is legit. Here’s our conversation, with a quick intro to each film for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Charlie Valentine (2009)
In this throwback to old school gangster movies, we follow the exploits of Charlie (Raymond J. Barry, Training Day), a career criminal whose tools of the trade are sawn-off shotguns and straight razors. He plans on scoring one last pay day, but when his perfect crime goes bad, he flees to LA to hide out with his estranged son, Danny (Michael Weatherly (TV’s N.C.I.S.), with rival gangsters turning every rock to learn the truth of their crime. The ensemble cast of veteran character actors includes James Russo (Donnie Brasco), Steven Bauer (Scarface) and Tom Berenger (Inception).
JVJ says, “This was the first film I made where it was the kind of collaboration I felt it should be. I was finally understanding what directing is all about. It was dialogue and performance driven and I sat with the actors to really collaborate and come up with cool stuff. Raymond J. Barry is a real force of nature and, during one scene, Michael Weatherly said it wasn’t really working and asked what we could change in my script. Raymond looked at him, and there was a silence that lasted a bit too long - to the point I was ready to jump in change anything they wanted - and Raymond spoke first and said ‘I signed on for this script and this is the script I’m going to do.’ [Laughs] Michael was a bit surprised but it was a real vote of confidence from our leading man. I was working with people far more experienced than me, but I’d never had an actor back me up that way, especially a lead. In terms of inspiration, Bob le Flambeur by Jean-Pierre Melville was a big one for me, I adore that movie.”
The Package (2013)
Combat vet Tommy Wick (WWE legend Steve Austin, The Expendables) is a nightclub bouncer and enforcer for a Seattle mob boss. The German (Dolph Lundgren, Rocky IV) is an international crime lord and killer. When Wick is asked to courier a mysterious package to The German, he finds himself hunted by relentless teams of hit men, mercenaries, assassins and crazies. With time is running out and bodies piling up, for two angry men with a history of bad blood, retaliation is about to be get ugly.
“Oh yeah, I really enjoyed working in Canada with this crew and collaborating with Steve and Dolph. It’s written by Derek Kolstad who also wrote John Wick. I feel like you can see him filling out certain lines of fantasy that would turn up later in the John Wick story, obviously handled differently by Chad Stahelski who did a great job and had a much, much bigger budget. But I think this works as a good precursor to John Wick. I really like the movie and I’m proud of what we accomplished.”
The Beautiful Ones (2017)
In a Romeo and Juliet inspired tale, Gabriel (Ross McCall, Band of Brothers), the nephew of a small-time underworld boss, falls in love with a woman from a rival family during a turf war and must use his unique skills to rescue her from the same people he once called brothers, who are now out to get him. The solid supporting cast includes Brian Tee (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows), Julie Warner (TV’s Crash) and late screen veteran, Ed Lauter (Cujo).
“This was the first time I wrote, directed and produced, and I wanted it to be character-based - with some action - but really about the actors. I wanted something totally out of the box because, in my experience, you’re revitalised when you do something different. I’d just finished The Package, very much made for the foreign market and there’s a long list of things you can and cannot do, so this time I chose to do things on the ‘cannot do’ list [Laughs]. This meant long takes, lots of dialogue and music-based scenes, much more achievable since I had control over my own film. We shot it in black and white and it did very well in festivals. A lot of people love that film and I still get a lot of messages from people saying how much it resonated with them.”
Savage Dog (2017)
In Indochina in 1959, a Wild West town is controlled by the criminal class: Vietnamese warlords and European war criminals. A labor camp is run by dangerous men and it’s here that a former boxer (Scott Adkins) has made a name for himself fighting tournaments, upon which wealthy criminals gamble. He must fight against odds to avenge a vicious act of violence and earn his freedom. This gritty period actioner also stars UFC and Strikeforce vet Cung Le (TV’s Into the Badlands) and Marko Zaror (Redeemer).
“Here’s what happened: after The Beautiful Ones I had to restart my career and I threw everything at the wall, everything but the kitchen sink! I wanted a period piece with lots of action, big guns and very little CGI. The violence had to go full hog with no holding back. I feel you can’t take on the big studios in a fair fight, so we did something they absolutely can’t do which is to show explicit violence, blowing heads off and using lots of blood. This was all in my script in the beginning, we just had to make it as realistic as possible. There was a point in my youth where I would seek out films like this. So I went back and wanted to rediscover my old interests and see if the market still exists, and I found out it does.”
Accident Man (2018)
Based on the popular British comic book, Toxic!, Mike Fallon (Scott Adkins) is the Accident Man – a stone cold killer and the best at what he does. When a loved one is dragged into the London underworld and murdered by his own crew, Fallon is forced to rip apart the life he knew to avenge the one who actually meant something. The talented cast includes Michael Jai White (Spawn), Ray Park (Star Wars: Episode I ), Ray Stevenson (Final Score), Nick Moran (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), Ashley Greene (Twilight) and Amy Johnston (Lady Bloodfight).
“Living in America and having my family based there, I found I’d become more American than English! This was the first time I made money in England for 25 years. Since I’d left, filmmakers like Guy Ritchie had come up and there was a new industry of low budget action films so it was wonderful, a completely different environment. I had great producers who looked after me and brought so much to the table, and it felt like we were making a really big movie. The cast was amazing to work with and, in my opinion, this is the moment Scott [Adkins] came into his own as an actor, proving what he can really do. It was also his passion project and a wonderful, delightful experience.”
The Debt Collector (2018)
In a razor sharp crime story, a classically-trained martial artist (Adkins), with mounting debts of his own, goes to work as a mob debt collector and finds himself teamed with a veteran of the business (Louis Mandylor, Martial Law). The job seems easy enough, until a client drags them into a situation deeper than they could anticipate, putting both their lives on the line with a moral decision to make. The cast here is rounded off by Vladimir Kulich (The Equalizer), Tony Todd (Candyman), Michael Paré (Streets of Fire) and Selina Lo (Boss Level).
“It was a physical, hard shoot and one of the hottest times in LA to be filming. The character of Sue was based on Jerry Trimble, who I’ve worked with many times before, and his anecdotes as a debt collector, bouncer and the various jobs you do as a martial artist in LA. He couldn’t do the film since he was committed to another shoot. Then I asked another friend, Timothy V. Murphy, but he was busy too. A director friend, William Kaufman, recommended Louis Mandylor, who I’d met and had even read for Charlie Valentine. When he came on set and did his first scene, Scott and I realised he was totally committed and immersed in this character and we were going to need to keep up. He’s brilliant…
My longtime cinematographer Jonathan Hall and I worked in a widescreen 35mm format with Techniscope, a format Sergio Leone used instead of regular anamorphic widescreen as it was too expensive. Panavision gave us these cameras very cheaply since no one was using them. With this equipment, I found we moved the camera less, more left to right than up and down, and let the shots breathe. People say this and Charlie Valentine are classical and ‘old worldly’ and think its the costumes or cars, but it’s the way its directed and the shot choice. It’s more familiar from films of the 1970’s and 80’s.”
Triple Threat (2019)
A hit contract is taken out on a billionaire's daughter intent on bringing down a major crime syndicate. In response, a group of down-and-outers, all with their own motivations, must band together to take on the group of assassins and stop them before they kill their target. The all-star martial arts cast includes Iko Uwais (The Raid), Tony Jaa (Ong Bak), Tiger Chen (Man of Tai Chi), Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White, former UFC champ Michael Bisping, Celina Jade (TV’s Arrow) and Jeeja Yanin (Chocolate).
“I had many challenges, the biggest of which was having a film with possibly the greatest martial arts ensemble of the decade, and I say that as a film fan, while still giving the fans what they want. It meant going through the script, making sure the action scenes reflected - to their best degree - what the cast could do. The tough part was making it work within the story and also within a tight schedule, which was very difficult. The fun was watching it come together and involving each of those actors in the fights, so that their thumb-print is on the action. I’m glad that people seem to dig it, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun!”
While granted compassionate leave from prison to visit his dying mother, a lowly criminal (Scott Adkins) escapes and returns to his old haunts to settle scores against the people that landed him in jail and made him a cold hearted killer. This dark tale, told in a non-linear structure, co-stars Craig Fairbrass (Muscle), Nick Moran, Thomas Turgoose (This is England), Kierston Wareing (Fish Tank) and Louis Mandylor.
“My original script had been around for a long time and when we unearthed it, Stu Small helped repurpose it, bring it up to date and really breathe new life into it. I really enjoy the collaborations between myself, Scott and Stu. The criminal activities of the bad guys in the script is based on true crime research I did, and I think it makes it interesting to build the story around atonement, rather than the old cliche of revenge. I was really inspired by Masaki Kobayashi’s samurai movie Harakiri, about an ageing samurai who walks into a castle, says he wants to commit suicide, before the story unfolds and tells us why… that he’s actually there for revenge! I always thought that was a really cool starting point.”
Avengement is out now