Producer: Brandon Burrows   Director: Christian Sesma   Screenplay: Chad Law, Josh Ridgway and Brandon Burrows   Cast: Ryan Kwanten, Dolph Lundgren, Dermot Mulroney, Scott Adkins, Mickey Rourke, Justin Furstenfeld, Maurice Compte, Tracy Perez, Robert LaSardo, Geoffrey Blake, Paul Sloan, Brandon Burrows, Kimi Alexander and Noah Sosnowski   Distributor: RLJE Films

Grade: D   

This pathetic little action movie is like a poor cousin of “The Gray Man,” sharing lots of plot beats with the recent big-budget Netflix opus.  That movie was bad; this one is worse.

In both scripts, an imprisoned fellow skilled in all the fighting arts is sprung to join a shadowy group designed to do the dirty stuff the government needs done, off the official books.  Here he’s Jake Atherton (Ryan Kwanten, an agreeable enough actor but a far cry from Ryan Gosling of “Man.”).  The initial act shows him surviving a terrorist attack during his tour of duty in Afghanistan, saved by the intervention of his commanding officer Tom Mason (Dolph Lundgren).  Back home, he shares an idyllic life with his wife Ashton (Kimi Alexander) and adoring young son Wes (Noah Sosnowski) while working as a mechanic for his grizzled “Uncle” Earl (Mickey Rourke), who practically raised him.

Unfortunately Earl’s garage is in a bad section of town, and when he’s harassed by the gang headed by brutal Fresh (Robert LaSardo), Jake intervenes and runs the thugs off.  Soon afterward he returns home to find his wife and son murdered and Fresh driving off.  Naturally he tracks the guy down and kills him and all his troop.  That lands him in the slammer. 

It’s there that he’s approached by Sam Ramsey (Dermot Mulroney) to join his crew, Section 8.  When Jake demurs, Ramsey insists, kidnapping him and forcing him to work alongside comrades like Ajax (Justin Furstenfeld) and Liza (Tracy Perez) in unsavory but presumably sanctioned missions.  Ramsey, though, comes to see Jake as too hesitant to off targets as quickly as he should, a trait demonstrated when he proves reluctant to kill a semi-fascist senator (Geoffrey Blake), who begs for his life by saying—you guessed it—that he has a wife and son.

Now convinced that Jake’s a liability, Ramsey not only looses his crew to track him down and eliminate him, but thinking that insufficient, employs a celebrated hit man, Leonard Locke (Scott Adkins), to assure that he’s taken care of.  (That’s the role played in “The Gray Man” by the miscast Chris Evans.)  In the ensuing mayhem lots of questions arise—is Section 8 really a secret government operation?  Is there anyone Jake can trust?—before our hero deals with Ramsey, and then, in a long, brutal face-off, with the implacable Locke, who feels bound by a contract even when his employer is deceased. 

Spoiler alert: Not only does Jake survive, but the movie leaves room for him to reappear in future installments.  And in the realm of modestly-budgeted action movies, anything is possible.

“Section 8” features a cast that, at least by the standard of such potboilers, is quite starry, and the fight choreography is decent enough, especially when Adkins is involved.  (The larger action sequences like car chases, on the other hand, are messily handled.)  But the script by Chad Law and Josh Ridgway (with an assist, per the closing credits, from producer Brandon Burrows, who also takes a small role as a cop) is a tissue of clichés, and Christian Sesma’s direction of the expository material is perfunctory, permitting actors like Rourke and Mulroney to chew the scenery even when delivering mundane dialogue.  He and editor Eric Potter also resort far too often to the device of teary flashbacks to Jake’s shocking discovery of his family’s bodies as a means of reminding us of his righteous fury.  They also remind us that Kwanten has some range as an actor, since otherwise his performance offers little more than a sense of dully stoic determination.

With a threadbare production design by Johnson Cooley and cinematography by A.J. Rickert-Epstein and Robert Polgar that keeps everything in the dark in an apparent attempt to conceal it, as well as a drably droning score by John Roome of the sort that seems to move from one of these small-scaled testosterone exercises to another without only minor changes, the movie is an entirely disposable combination of conspiratorial skullduggery and mediocre action, unredeemed by the presence of a few recognizable faces in the cast.