By Joe Leydon
Cast: Steven Yeun, Samara Weaving, Dallas Mark Roberts, Caroline Chikezie, Mark Stewart Frost, Kerry Fox, Lucy Chappell, Steven Brand.
If you can imagine a multi-movie-mashup of boardroom suspenser, “Die Hard” redux and zombie apocalypse — well, too bad, director Joe Lynch and scripter Matias Caruso have already beat you to the punch. “Mayhem,” their rousingly gonzo thriller about the violent commingling of infectious disease and corporate malfeasance, is a smartly constructed and sardonically funny indie with attitude that somehow manages the tricky feat of being exuberantly over the top even as it remains consistently on target.
The opening minutes briskly establish the B-movie premise, as a cable-newscaster explains the growing threat of the “ID7 virus,” a mind-twisting, id-unleashing scourge that drives the infected to such unseemly extremes as uninhibited public fornication, high-decibel screaming matches, and, in some cases, rage-fueled slaughters. (“Basically,” someone helpfully explains, “human dignity takes a sick leave.”) Attorneys for the corporate law firm of Towers & Smyth Consulting manage to clear an accused killer by arguing that ID7 made their client temporarily unable to control his actions. But in a classic case of chickens coming home to roost, the virus is discovered in the firm’s high-rise headquarters, leading to the imposition of an eight-hour quarantine — and, as the infection spreads, an inexorable escalation of seriously bad behavior.
Derek Cho (Stephen Yeun, late of “The Walking Dead”), who does double duty as protagonist and narrator, is the right man in the wrong place at the worst possible time. After being framed for making an expensive error that’s damaging to one of the firm’s biggest clients, Cho is brutally rebuffed when he complains to his immediate superior (Caroline Chikezie) — who, of course, is really the one who made the bad call. But before he can plead his case to the firm’s ferocious CEO (Steven Brand) in the top-floor boardroom, the outbreak begins and all hell breaks loose.
Cleverly redefining the term “damage control,” “Mayhem” mixes savage satire of ruthless capitalism run amok with the bloody carnage normally associated with movies about rampaging undead hordes. Call it “Margin Call Goes to Hell,” and you’d be pretty close to the mark.
Joined by Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving), an outsider who gets caught up in the chaos while visiting Towers & Smyth to dispute a foreclosure notice, Cho makes slow, steady progress in his floor-by-floor ascent to the boardroom, in a manner that suggests a relentless avatar in an M-rated videogame. It helps a lot that he and Cross have been exposed to ID7, rendering the pair sufficiently unrestrained and enraged to efficiently wield found objects — nail guns, screwdrivers, power saws, whatever — as weapons. On the other hand, they are repeatedly impeded by crazed employees and thuggish security personnel, all of whom are revved up by the $450,000 bounty the big boss places on Cho’s head.
Yeun and Weaving generate beaucoup rooting interest as they cut a bloody swath through the dark side of corporate culture and spark a high-voltage sexual tension that leads to a gleefully spirited payoff. For all the grievous bodily harm their characters cause, they remain engagingly sympathetic, providing useful counterbalance for the purposeful overplaying by, among others, Chikezie as a silkily villainous conniver known as The Siren, and Brand as the CEO who insanely amps the effects of ID7 with his customary intake of recreational drugs.
“Mayhem” keeps the pedal to the metal throughout its lean-and-mean 86-minute running time, allowing few opportunities for any catching of breath or scoping for plot holes. Somewhere down the line, it would indeed be amusing to see it on a double bill with “Margin Call.” Or, perhaps better still, “Office Space.”
SXSW Film Review: 'Mayhem'
Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Midnighters), March 15, 2017. Running time: 86 MIN.
PRODUCTION: An Avva Pictures presentation of a Circle of Confusion, Royal Viking Entertainment production. (International sales: Paradigm.) Producers: Mehrdad Elie, Matt Smith, Lawrence Mattis, Sean Sorensen, Parisa Caviani. Executive Producers: Buddy Enright, Steven Yeun.
CREW: Director: Joe Lynch. Screenplay: Matias Caruso. Camera (color): Steve Gainer. Editor: Josh Ethier.
WITH: Steven Yeun, Samara Weaving, Dallas Mark Roberts, Caroline Chikezie, Mark Stewart Frost, Kerry Fox, Lucy Chappell, Steven Brand.