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Nassim Lyes punches a bloody man lying on a pool table in a neon-tinged image from Mayhem! Image: IFC Films

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The best action movie of the year came early in 2024

Mayhem! is a late Christmas miracle for action fans everywhere

Pete Volk (he/they) is Polygon’s Senior Curation Editor, with a particular love for action and martial arts movies.

Every few years, a new action movie recalibrates expectations for the genre. It happened in 2011 with The Raid: Redemption, it happened in 2014 with John Wick, and it’s about to happen again with Mayhem!, the new revenge thriller from many of the people behind the brilliant first season of Gangs of London.

Mayhem!, which first made waves at Fantasia Fest under its original title, Farang, will be released in U.S. theaters on Jan. 5. Director Xavier Gens, action designer and second unit director Jude Poyer, and star Nassim Lyes have created a kinetic, violent experience that delivers what fans want from this kind of R-rated actioner. Camera movements in perfect concert with the action plus fluid, grounded choreography performed by a former national champion kickboxer combine for a mesmerizing experience that easily would have been the best action movie of 2023 if it had come out just a week earlier.

The action scenes are excellent and vicious, deployed sparingly in the first half of the movie and then at great length in the back half. But brutal violence isn’t what separates Mayhem! from other recent revenge stories: This movie excels because it takes the time to give specificity and details to its principal characters, making the story and its tragedy more deeply felt.

Samir (Lyes) is an ex-con who fled from France to Thailand after a run-in with his former gang. There, he builds a beautiful life with his wife, Mia (Loryn Nounay), raising a child together and saving money to buy land in order to run a restaurant. But Thailand’s laws and a powerful real estate developer get in the way, forcing Samir into a dangerous situation in his attempts to pursue his family’s dream.

Nassim Lyes embraces Loryn Nounay on the beach as they both smile in Mayhem! Image: IFC Films

Bad guys attack, loved ones die, Samir wants vengeance — you know the deal. This kind of revenge story can be rote; we’ve seen it a million times. But Gens gives this portion of the movie the attention it deserves. Samir and Mia aren’t just the kind of stock idyllic family seen in so many other revenge action movies. Yes, they have a happy life together and are enmeshed in their community, but they have specific jobs (he at an airport, she at a bar) and specific desires they’re working toward together, which makes them feel more like real people. Those goals aren’t incidental to the narrative: They eventually bring Samir and Mia into direct contact with danger.

That gives extra weight to the all-too-relatable struggle of hoping to achieve dreams together, but being boxed out by the rich and powerful. There are effective splashes of action at the start, including a thrilling early chase sequence through a construction site, but Gens and team give this part of the story room to breathe.

And thank God they do, because once Mayhem! turns into a revenge story, it hits hard, emotionally and physically. It isn’t just Samir and Mia’s plight that feels authentic: The grounded approach to the movie’s action design, combined with a steady ramping-up of gore, makes the fight scenes feel genuinely dangerous.

Nassim Lyes executes a sick side kick while wearing a white suit in a house in Mayhem! Image: IFC Films

That sense of danger is a natural fit for the movie’s action pedigree. Gens and Poyer are both friends and collaborators with The Raid director Gareth Evans, working with him on Gangs of London and the upcoming Tom Hardy actioner Havoc. For Mayhem!, the team leaned on pre-viz, short for previsualization, where action sequences are planned out shot-for-shot and filmed as a live-action storyboard for the actual shoot. It’s a technique beloved by Evans and John Wick maestro Chad Stahelski, and it allows for better planning of how the sequences will actually look and feel for audiences.

Poyer also effectively deploys motivated camera movements that fans of The Raid will instantly recognize, moving the camera with the action to emphasize the impact of the hits. There are few more cinematically satisfying experiences than a camera moving in concert with a devastating blow.

Mayhem’s action is brutal and kinetic, with inventive kills, strong location work, and realistic choreography that makes the most of Lyes’ kickboxing pedigree. It’s a true star-making performance for him, as he juggles the role’s demanding physical requirements with a deep well of sorrow that permeates the entire affair, even as he dispatches foe after foe.

It all culminates in a showstopper set-piece that’s one of the best action sequences in years: an extended hallway fight that moves into an elevator for a carefully orchestrated, chaotic finale. It’s breathless, endlessly creative, and grounded, which makes the gore even more intense as it ramps up in the enclosed space of the elevator. The change in choreography and filming style from hallway to elevator gives the scene new life, as Samir goes from having lots of space for taking down his many opponents to having very little.

Nassim Lyes, looking absolutely shredded, gets his arm raised in the ring after a fight in Mayhem! Image: IFC Films

Crucially, as skilled of a fighter as Samir is, Mayhem! doesn’t shy away from dealing him punishment as well. He gets beat the hell up in the movie, increasing the sense of danger and the stakes of every encounter. The elevator sequence should go down in the 21st-century movie fight scene hall of fame.

In the press notes for Mayhem!, Gens talks about his experience producing the “artsy film d’auteur” Papicha, directed by his wife, Mounia Meddour. He says working on that film and Gangs of London at the same time gave his own approach a “reboot.” Those projects’ different storytelling approaches synthesize in Mayhem! to fantastic effect. The romantic/crime drama of the first half is deeply moving, while the latter brings together Evans’ methodical approach to action filmmaking and penchant for brutal kills, making Mayhem! an irresistible combination for action fans everywhere.

Mayhem! opens in U.S. theaters on Jan. 5.