“I’m not leaving until I plead my case.“
Working in an office can feel a lot like working in hell. Not just because the work can be mind-numbingly boring. And not because offices are sterile, impersonal spaces that can crush the human spirit. It’s because you’re surrounded by people you don’t like very much. People that you’re in competition with whether you want it or not. People who will throw you under a bus to save their own skin. You put up with their inane comments and laugh at their jokes and feign camaraderie. You do this because you’re a human being. Basic human dignity prevents you from spewing profanity at them. Or jabbing a pen in their neck. Or worse.
Joe Lynch’s Mayhem is office-as-hell incarnate. It unfolds in the sleazy confines of a corporate law firm. The sort of place where basic human dignity can easily take a sick day. So what do you get when you pack a building full of lawyers and infect them with a disease that takes away all inhibition? You get more sex and violence and f-bombs than you can shake a stick at. You get chippy dialogue and clever one-liners. You get a heavy metal soundtrack, a steady accumulation of bodies and some seriously brutal kills. Essentially … Mayhem.
The film follows a once bright-eyed young lawyer named Derek Cho (Steven Yeun) who’s fallen into the moral abyss of corporate law. Seems Derek found a legal loophole that exonerates anyone infected with the ID7 Virus from being held accountable for their actions while infected. That feat landed him a big fat promotion. But it cost him more of his soul than expected. His ambitious ladder-climbing may cost him even more. That changes when one of his superiors (a deliciously evil Caroline Chikezie) sets him up for a big fall. Cho lobbies to plead his case to the company’s board of executives to no avail. Before he can be escorted from the premises, the CDC shows up and quarantines the building. Everyone inside has been infected with ID7. And all hell is about to break loose.
Lynch leads into that moment by expertly laying out the stakes of Mayhem. We meet his cast of characters. We learn through flashback just what ID7 is (it’s like the rage virus from 28 Days Later, only you’re alive and conscious and the symptoms pass after 8 hours). We learn the toll it’s taken on the world. And we learn the ramifications of Cho’s legal triumph. Tensions arise every step of the way with subtle and not so subtle clues to the impending chaos.
In the midst of that chaos, Cho sees a chance to get his job back. ‘Cause he can kill anyone who stands in his way. And there are many. He’s aided on his mission by Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving), a tough as nails foreclosure victim who can get the bank off her back with a signature from a board member. Armed with a menacing set of power tools, the pair set out to fight their way to top and find a little justice for themselves. By the time that infection takes hold, we’re primed for a no holds barred battle for survival.
And that’s exactly what Lynch provides. Violence erupts throughout the film with a giddy sort of glee. Lynch stages impalings and hammerings and nail-gunnings for maximum impact. He makes stunning use of sound to give each event its own savage feel. And he escalates the bloodletting in creative ways. But there’s an odd sort of righteousness about it all. Yeun and Weaving are responsible for that. The pair have a palpable, natural chemistry that brings a much needed humanity to the bloody business at hand. Their quippy back-and-forth would be right at home in a romantic comedy if they weren’t, you know, mercilessly killing lots of people all the way.
Still, as crazy as things get, Lynch & Co. often feel like they’re holding back. After all, when you title your story Mayhem you set a certain expectation. That romantic subplot ends up undercutting the cynical tone of the film. While the action is brutal and bloody, you’ve seen worse every week on The Walking Dead. The language and insults loose impact about halfway through the action. When they do, the film’s sense of humor suffers mightily (see poorly executed Dave Matthews Band jokes). And Lynch’s habit of cutting away from several key deaths undermines the film’s maniacal edginess.
It’s also a bit of a cheat that an uncontrollable disease sets the savagery in motion. That fact essentially excuses every despicable action from a moral perspective. It eliminates any real sense of humanity in the process. The corporate world is cutthroat enough as it is. Morally bankrupt people making morally questionable decisions could just as easily have set Mayhem in motion. It would’ve been far more unsettling had all this carnage arisen without the aid of a super-virus. Human nature is a dangerous thing on its own. More and more, people are proving that they don’t need a virus to do bad things to each other. Just proper, self-serving motivation. Mayhem never stops to ask if we really need an excuse to let anyone off the hook. It undermines its own sense of justice as a result. Without that, it’s little more than a senseless game of blood and guts.