An opening shot of shirtless Milo Gibson doing sit-ups while hanging from a ceiling bar in a Morocco hotel room raises expectations that “All the Devil’s Men” will be an unwitting exercise in “MacGruber”-ism — 1980s-style turbo machismo run amok. For better or worse, this U.K.-produced action opus doesn’t linger on that extreme end of genre caricature, though it remains hard to take fully seriously. To his credit, writer-director Matthew Hope’s third feature (following not-dissimilar “The Veteran” and zombie horror “The Vanguard”) mostly sidesteps the cheese factor in telling a tale of bullet-riddled skullduggery between mercenaries, CIA agents, and terrorists.
Yet there’s still a tang of C-grade cliché to a movie too obviously trying to pull off global intrigue on a low budget, with a surfeit of alpha-male posturing, hamfisted dialogue, and incessant gunfire ultimately failing to provide sufficient credibility (let alone production values). Resourceful and energetic, “All the Devil’s Men” is better than it might have been. But it’s still not very good. Already available on DirecTV, it opens on 10 U.S. screens simultaneous with On Demand release today.
Ex-Navy SEAL Collins is a “messed up war junkie” who’s gone from military service to more covert functions, performing missions the U.S. doesn’t want its official personnel affiliated with — such as assassinating some terrorism-tied figure newly arrived in Marrakech at the start here. In Gibson’s automaton-like performance, Collins is a believable-enough killing machine, though we can’t quite grasp any extenuating PTSD torment. We have to be told he’s actively avoiding returning “home” to a wife he’s abandoned and a child he’s never met; he seems not so much troubled (despite his pill-popping) as usefully blank.
After that job, Collins boards a plane to England, getting briefed on his next assignment by CIA minder Leigh (Sylvia Hoeks), who reunites him with salty-dog longtime colleague Brennan (William Fichtner) and introduces his mutually unwilling new partner Samuelson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). The chest-thumping immediately commences, with Collins balling his fists as Samuelson spouts things like “I’m the best!” and “I’m not a bounty hunter. I’m a shadow warrior.” Collins is also dismayed to discover their target is McKnight (Elliot Cowan), a former trench buddy whom Leigh says has gone over to the dark side, feeding intel to the Taliban.
His skepticism is considerably lessened after comrade Deighton (Joseph Millson), whose life Collins once saved in Afghanistan, pulls a violent runner that leaves their team down one member. Now he and McKnight must be stopped before they complete a potentially catastrophic exchange involving Russians and nuclear warheads.
After its Middle Eastern prologue, “Devil’s Men” takes place almost exclusively “around London,” albeit in those unpopulated settings familiar to low-budget action movies — empty warehouses, industrial sites, nocturnal docks, back alleys, and so on. While director Hope uses those spaces ably enough, there is nonetheless a sense that this could be set anywhere, and that the alleged high global stakes are a routine plot device rather than anything tangible. Though he also stages decent shootouts, they too become somewhat monotonous and interchangeable.
Further, all the characters here are morally compromised enough that there’s no real rooting value. Between performances variably dullish (Gibson, Cowan) on one end and overheated (Akinnagbe) on the other, not to mention too much dialogue that sounds like an effortfully profane version of rams butting horns, there aren’t the kind of vivid personalities that might add more than cookie-cutter, “G.I. Joe” bomber crew-level human interest.
It’s good that Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks (“The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” “Blade Runner 2049”) is here to counter the testosterone overdose a bit. Better still, her sole female figure is not deployed for rote romantic-interest or sex-object purposes. Yet her earnest, business-like presence is somewhat diminished by the fact that she seems too young to be in a position of significant CIA authority.
There’s a lot of double- and triple-crossing, culminating in a fadeout that seems to go one plot twist over the line of narrative coherency. Ultimately, “All the Devil’s Men” seems more laudable for what it avoids being (a thick slice of overripe “Rambo”-esque he-man heroics) than what it tries but fails to be: an intricate international crime/political thriller in the mode of “The French Connection” and “Day of the Jackal” (Hope’s models according to the press notes). Of course he doesn’t have those films’ budgetary resources at his disposal. Still, “Men” might have made more of less if it had scaled its ambitions down to ideas it could actually afford to depict.
It’s the kind of film whose principal tech/design contributions — DP Robin Whenary’s widescreen images, Emma Gaffney’s brisk editing, an orchestral score credited to Amory Leader and Simon Williams — seem professionally adept enough to elevate things a bit. But perhaps that’s because one watches “All the Devil’s Men” with initially low expectations that the film never raises very far.