Director: Christian Sesma
Cast: Frank Grillo, Scott Adkins, Dermot Mulroney, Jaime King, Mekhi Phifer, Kevin Gage, Amaury Nolasco, JuJu Chan, Erica Peeples, Jessica Medina
Running Time: 90 min.
By Paul Bramhall
An opening scene that sees a soldier under heavy fire in Afghanistan, trying to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds. Nondescript enemies popping up everywhere as cannon fodder. A harrowing conclusion before we cut forward to present day, where we may or may not get a tenuous connection to it later. Yes, what I’m describing could be any one of the DTV Steven Seagal flicks made during his infamous mid-2000’s to mid-2010’s orange sunglasses and bandana era, but it’s not. Instead, it’s Lights Out, and the soldier in question is played by Scott Adkins. Unlike those DTV Steven Seagal flicks though, which would continue to feature the portly Aikido master for the next 90 minutes, here Scott Adkins then proceeds to disappear from the narrative, and you’ll have to wait 70 minutes for him to show up again.
Instead, we get a Frank Grillo movie. Grillo’s career fascinates me, I mean here’s a guy who’s been acting since the early 1990’s, however it feels like he only came on the radar for most audiences 10 years ago after playing Brock Rumlow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, going on to have a recurring role in the Marvel Universe. Since then he’s gone on to carve out somewhat of a niche for himself as a leading man of DTV martial arts infused action flicks like Beyond Skyline, Boss Level, and King of Killers. What’s interesting is that he’s done all this while in his 50’s, which means if you were to place him side by side with a contemporary like, let’s say Scott Adkins, comparatively it’d mean the British thespian’s career as an action star hasn’t started yet.
Still, kicking off your movie with a Scott Adkins action scene and then doing a bait and switch to a Frank Grillo flick is a dicey proposition, and likely one that only a director like Christian Sesma would attempt to pull off. That’s because he’s done it once before in 2022’s Section 8, his last movie before making Lights Out, and one that’s best described as a lamentable actioner which starred a painfully miscast Ryan Kwanten. Section 8 is worth mentioning since it starts in a practically identical manner, with an Afghanistan set opening that ticks off all the boxes mentioned above, and is likely a result of both productions sharing Chad Law as a co-writer, one who obviously isn’t averse to recycling his own work.
Once we’re in Grillo territory we meet his character as he hops off from the truck he’s caught a ride from, arriving in the latest small town with nothing but the rucksack on his back and the smarts to get enough money for a night in the nearest motel. A kind of 21st century First Blood if you will. After winning a card game with some bikers in the local bar, when they prove reluctant to hand over the winnings Grillo gets his first chance to start punching people in the face, a talent which captures the attention of a just out of jail Mekhi Phifer (8 Mile). Indebted to dodgy gym owner Dermot Mulroney (who after also featuring in Section 8 can now be called a Sesma regular), who runs a side hustle of underground fight tournaments where “the guy at the hospital…is the winner, the loser is the guy at the morgue”, Phifer senses a way to make a quick buck by convincing Grillo to become a fighter as an “outlet” for his PTSD.
A bigger threat looms though when Grillo shacks up with Phifer’s sister and her daughter, and it turns out his sisters no good boyfriend has been storing a bag of dirty cash belonging to a pair of corrupt cops in her house. The cops are played by Jaime King (Escape Plan 2: Hades) and Paul Sloan (Take Back), and when both the boyfriend and the bag goes missing, Grillo’s adopted family soon find themselves in the line of fire, and he has to decide if he’ll put it all on the line to protect them.
Plot wise Lights Out certainly doesn’t break any new ground, re-treading familiar territory that any aficionado of DTV action cinema will have seen plenty of times before, and in many ways it feels like the whole production has been beamed in from 2004 rather than 2024. Like the horrendous Tapout movies that clogged the DTV market in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s Sesma’s latest features many of the same traits – the best thing about the fight scenes is watching the extras that make up the crowd, insufferable hip hop music plays over all of them, and we get the obligatory UFC fighter included in the cast (here it’s Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone). In fact the only thing that’s missing that the Tapout movies always ensured to include is a strip club visit to pad out the runtime with a few minutes of topless dancing. No big loss.
For a production that sells its entire premise on the fight scenes, the action is a surprisingly lacklustre affair, especially considering its Luke LaFontaine on action duty. A regular collaborator with director Jesse V. Johnson, some of LaFontaine’s best work is on display in Scott Adkins flicks like The Debt Collector and its sequel, but here the fight choreography doesn’t feel that far removed from a 1990’s Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson joint. Almost all of the fights are woefully short, as in barely lasting more than a few seconds, and there’s an emphasis on isolated kicks or punches as the finishing blows that feels like American DTV fight choreography just stepped back in time 30 years. The inclusion of The Street Fighter (or Romeo Must Die if you’re so inclined) styled x-ray shots of Grillo breaking noses and other associated bones feels uninspired rather than conveying any kind of meaningful impact, and everything feels decidedly anticlimactic.
A sure-fire candidate for the most thankless casting of the year, even Juju Chan (Invincible Dragon) makes an appearance as Dermot Mulroney’s partner, who gets one miserably shot fight that bares hardly any relation to the main plot, then gets a death scene that’s so undignified I laughed out loud. Ironically it’s Jamie King in a non-action performance who comes out looking the best, delivering a tightly coiled performance as the corrupt cop who goes to increasingly desperate measures to find the bag of cash, and brings a sense of gravitas to any scene she appears in. The only detractor from her performance is that her hairstyle drastically changes in almost every scene, from a Sammo Hung in Wheels on Meals-esque perm, to a messy bob, to a stylish bouffant, the straight-faced absurdity of it is at least enough to keep anyone watching on their toes.
By the time everyone has their backs against the wall, with 15 minutes to go Grillo announces that he’s “going to call somebody who may be able to help”, giving Adkins an excuse to show his face again as the ex-army buddy from Afghanistan, who now appears to have become an illegal arms dealer. The finale forsakes any fight action, instead opting for a shootout that takes place in Mulrony’s gym, and is unfortunately edited in such a way that makes little sense from an audience perspective. Important visual aspects like the distance and position of those spraying the bullets in relation to each other are unclear, resulting in it feeling more like a collection of shots featuring people firing guns that have been stitched together at random.
With all this being said, what can’t be denied is that Grillo makes for a likeable protagonist, even with the flimsiest of character motivations he comes across well, and the scenes he shares with Adkins in the finale show a surprisingly affecting chemistry that makes me want to see more of them together. Preferably it’d be in a movie directed by Jesse V. Johnson rather than Christian Sesma, but on the plus side at least Lights Out doesn’t suffer from another catatonic cameo from Mickey Rourke, who seemed to be making it a habit to turn up in Sesma’s movies in some shape or form for a while there. With low expectations Sesma’s latest foray into DTV action may be an enjoyable enough time passer, however too much of it feels like the minimum amount of effort was exerted to get it across the line, and personally I like my fight scenes to last a little longer before its Lights Out.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 4/10