‘Mayhem’ (2017) Review

Per The State vs. Nevil Reed, my colleague and I will not be held criminally liable for any felony or misdemeanor that you may be a victim of, including but not limited to aggravated assault, aggravated battery, disorderly conduct, destruction of property, mayhem, and first-degree murder.”

I worked in an office for a few years. It was actually a pretty decent experience, most of the time, but there were definite frustrations. I started during the waning years of the dot.com boom and for years afterwards the company struggled to find a new path forward. Things that had been part of that loose, free and fun sort of culture – like the occasional Nerf war – when things were booming started being frowned upon. Departments that had worked well together started to get consolidated and downsized and resentments grew. By the time I was let go I was glad to leave and my blood pressure went from 160/97 – technically hypertension – to  113/72. I sometimes miss the people I worked with and the way the company was when I joined, but I don’t miss cubicles, unreasonable deadlines, backstabbing or stress.

I don’t think I ever imagined shooting any of my co-workers with a nail gun, though.

The Medium
Mayhem was initially a Shudder exclusive and there’s also a version on the service that has a commentary track with Steven Yeun and director Joe Lynch. You can also now get it through Hoopla, Direct TV and AMC+ for subs, as well as rent or purchase via the usual online outlets.

There’s a Blu-ray (and 4k) release from 2017 as well, with a few extras.

The Movie
Mayhem doesn’t hide its intent – we’re shown right at the start what kind of movie we’re going to be in for. Steven Yeun’s Derek Cho helpfully informs us in voice-over about the ID-7 virus, also known as “Red Eye.” Over a montage of office workers committing violent and carnal acts with and against each other we learn that the virus, while non-lethal, suppresses moral inhibitions and frees the ID, causing violent (and violent) emotional outbursts and behavior. Cho was the lawyer that helped determine ID-7 victims weren’t liable for their actions while under the influence of the virus. Including murder.

So we know where this is going, right? The movie isn’t called “Normal Day at the Office.” There will be Mayhem. Oh yes.

But before we get there we get to see Derek in his natural habitat, that of the backstabbing, moral vapor that is a high-priced law firm. A place where your worth is measured in billable hours and the bathrooms you’re allowed access to. A place where a stolen mug is a sign of your waning fortunes.

We’re given just enough time to get the idea that Derek may not really be made for this kind of corporate shark tank. He’s willing to defend bullied secretaries and has a sister that really cares for him, but he’s still a ‘bloodsucking lawyer’ and when he meets with Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving), a mortgage client, he infuriates her by his dismissive reaction to her case. He’s more worried about his missing mug. And he should be, because his corporate masters  – CEO John ‘The Boss’ Towers (Steven Brand) and Kara ‘The Siren’ Powers (Caroline Chikezie) –  are in the process of throwing him under a virtual bus, saddling him with responsibility for a bungled case for a huge client.

Mayhem is pretty black and white in its setup of the protagonists/antagonists – there are no gray areas where we struggle with the appropriateness of people’s actions. There are good guys, there are bad guys, and there’s a lot of extreme violence  – but even that, as bloody as it is, isn’t so graphic as to be difficult to watch. It’s almost cartoonish, where people can receive a pair of scissors to the hand then be fine with a bandage. A mouthful of pepper spray is alleviated by a water cooler. The result is that, despite nail guns, wrenches, golf clubs and fire extinguishers we’re never really required to deal with the consequences of using those weapons on soft, breakable human bodies. That would get in the way of the fun.

And god help me, Mayhem IS fun. From the moment the authorities quarantine the facility and the ID-7 outbreak gets going in earnest there’s just scene after scene of cathartic violence. Derek and Melanie join forces to get to the top floor and plead their cases to the ‘Nine’ – the board of directors, motivated by an 8 hour deadline while a treatment works its way through the building. And they’ll go through anyone they have to in order to get there (and maybe get a little – or a lot – revenge on the way. Really the details of their journey – involving key cards to get to the top floors and hacking computers (and people) – aren’t important. It’s a trip full of violent set pieces and momentary setbacks that serve only to let us catch our breath before the next showdown.

Yeun and Weaving are likeable enough as their characters to carry us through the carnage, with their antagonism warming to something like lust – the movie includes an unlikely love scene, but what the hell else about the movie is truly likely? The pacing is sometimes uneven, with more dialogue and introspection than seems advisable, given the level of antagonism the virus is supposed to inflict. That patina of social relevance is just that, a thin layer to justify how good you feel about seeing bad people get what’s coming to them. Some small part of the film is saying something about how the corporate dog-eat-dog world is turning us all into animals, but it’s all drowned in the blood. “Paint your own path to success,” Derek says at the end – but it’s a homily literally punctuated by a body hitting the floor.

The Bottom Line
If The Belko Experiment was Office Space crossed with Battle Royal,  Mayhem is Office Space crossed with Crank – it’s a violent revenge fantasy that manages only a touch of social relevance, but that’s enough to make it disturbingly cathartic. Yes, a lot of people get brutally hurt/killed, but to quote Harry Trasker in True Lies, “they were all bad.” For Mayhem, that’s all the justification you need.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.