2024 started off with a bang for action fans with the release of Mayhem!, the excellent new revenge thriller from some of the people behind Gangs of London. The movie isn’t just an action slugfest — it distinguishes itself from many of its peers with a heartfelt story that doesn’t feel like window dressing. But when the action hits, it really hits.
Polygon spoke to director Xavier Gens, action designer and second unit director Jude Poyer, and star Nassim Lyes, who combined forces to create a movie with evocative choreography and camera movement that simultaneously works toward a compelling narrative and thematic endpoint. Lyes is a former welterweight kickboxing national champion in France, and Mayhem! lets him deliver a breakout performance. Meanwhile, Gens’ and Poyer’s experiences on Gangs of London, along with the deep wealth of knowledge that martial arts movie fanatic Poyer brings to the project, help the action sequences feel fresh and energetic.
But bringing so many talented people in for a movie during the era of COVID-19 wasn’t easy. It required a tremendous amount of prep work, which had to be handled by several different teams located across the globe.
While Gens shot drama sequences or scouted locations in Thailand, Poyer (based in England) worked on pre-viz and choreography with the action team. The pre-viz (a technique where versions of the action sequences are filmed in a gym or studio, to create a sort of live-action storyboard) would be sent to Gens, and after his stamp of approval, would go to French stunt coordinator Olivier Sa. He would then teach Lyes the choreography and rehearse with him in France.
“This was very much a pandemic experience with a lot of remote working,” Poyer says. “Even though it was quite a disparate experience, by the time we all turned up early in 2022 in Thailand, we had a very clear vision about what we needed to do with those sequences.”
All that prep work paid off. When a key actor got sick right before shooting a crucial scene, the team pivoted to shooting other sequences without missing a beat, since every department knew exactly what was required of them.
“With our pre-viz, it’s not a blocking tape. It’s ‘These are the shots,’” Poyer says. “You will make little adjustments based on performance or rhythm, or the realities of the day, but it’s very specific shot-by-shot motivated camerawork, motivated camera movement, and edit points.”
The sequence that best illustrates the effectiveness of this meticulous approach is a frantic hallway-into-elevator fight sequence in Mayhem!’s third act. Vengeful protagonist Samir (Lyes) fights his way through a hallway of bad guys with the help of a friend, then moves on to a crowded elevator for more action.
The fights are connected, directly flowing from one to the other, but they couldn’t be more different. In the hallway, Samir and his many opponents have room to maneuver, dodging blows and delivering big, punishing hits. In the elevator, the cramped space changes the dynamics and choreography completely, and even becomes a deadly weapon itself. Poyer and Gens appropriately amp up the level of gore in this segment of the movie, increasing the sense of danger as Samir fights for his life.
“I want the audience to feel that this guy that just beat up 15 people could easily die,” Poyer says. “It’s about a tonal shift, and about a mood shift.”
Besides Lyes’ standout performance and the brutal choreography, Mayhem!’s use of the confined space helps distinguish it from other elevator fight scenes. That’s because Poyer and his team refused to cheat the tight space — they used a realistically sized elevator, and only removed a wall once to make room for the camera.
“We’ve probably all seen elevator fights where the elevator feels like you could turn a car around in it,” Poyer says. “But it wasn’t like we built a bigger set to make it easier for the stunt performers and the camera to all dance around each other. I wanted that claustrophobic feel. I wanted it to feel sometimes like the camera movement is a little bit behind the action that’s going on. Like it’s playing catch-up, because I like fights that feel like fights.”
Part of Poyer’s process involves thinking through the sequences as actual fights, which helps them feel true to life. He’ll put himself in the protagonist’s position, surrounding himself with stunt performers ready to “attack,” and ask his collaborators what moves he could use to get out of that situation.
“We shoot each other’s ideas down, we interrogate them, we try and find the way that’s most credible,” he says. “I wouldn’t say what we do is realistic, but I want it to be believable.”
“Sometimes when you see action movies you’re like, [scoffs] Oh, yeah, one against 100,” Lyes says. “No.”
Put all this preparation, expertise, and talent together, and you’ve got an outstanding action sequence that will go down in the Fight Scene Hall of Fame — but also one hell of a difficult job Lyes had to pull off. In the four days of shooting the sequence, he spent a lot of time in a small space that he estimated rose to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, trying to master every move of the detailed choreography.
“I was like, Oh my God, I’m literally gonna pass out,” Lyes says. “But to me, this is one of the greatest elevator action scenes ever made. So no regrets. And, if I had to do it again, I would do it 100%.”
Mayhem! is out in select theaters, or available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, and Vudu.