I didn’t know anything about Steven C. Miller’s home invasion thriller until it fell through my letterbox, so you’ll forgive me for expecting some kind of lame, martial arts action movie. The opening ten minutes didn’t give much away either, suggesting another low budget gangster affair, especially when Ray Wise (Robocop) showed up, chewing the scenery like he hadn’t had a meal in weeks. Thankfully, it’s not that kind of film either. The best way of describing The Aggression Scale is by placing it somewhere between Rambo and Home Alone, and if that doesn’t get your attention nothing will.
“A psychological test measuring the frequency of overt aggressive behaviours that may result in physical or psychological injury to others.” That’s what we’re talking about here, a home invasion thriller that pits psychotic hitmen against a mute boy and his unstrung sister in law. A brutal opening introduces us to the bad guys of the piece, including Dana Ashbrook (Twin Peaks, Dawson’s Creek) as Lloyd – a cool, calm, collected killer who’s about to meet his match in a teenage boy. Derek Mears (Predators) certainly looks the part as one of his streetwise cronies, but as it turns out, together they form a kind of modern day Harry and Marv, only slightly more sinister.
They work for Bellavance (Wise), a convicted murderer out on parole. He has two days to find his stolen money and escape to an undisclosed country where nobody can find him. So he hires four gun-toting hitmen to send a message to the suspects and their families, which they do, in an unashamed opening that takes no prisoners both on and off screen. The pace slows down, and switches gear completely, when we meet Maggie (Lisa Rotondi), Bill (Boyd Kestner) and their wayward children. Owen (Ryan Hartwig) doesn’t have a single line in the movie, but he does possess a mighty fine collection of ‘Rambo for Dummies’ books to keep him disturbed. Lauren (Fabianne Therese) is the older of the two and not at all impressed with the current climate, but she does look good in a bath towel so we’ll let her off for now.
It’s not until the gunmen show up that the film gathers pace. Just when you think the bad guys are going to torture the hostages until they cave in, the film changes shape again. Before you can say "huh?” The Untouchables are being stalked by Dennis the Menace. Lauren spends the entire second act crying and screaming, which takes all the good work she did in the first half (walking around in a towel, running around in a low cut top) and flushes it down the toilet. You might even hope she’s next on Owen’s kill list, and I’m sure he’d oblige, were it not for the fact that he’s knee deep in booby traps. The only thing missing is a scene with them hiding in the garage, seemingly defeated before ripping through the doors in a tank made out of old car parts and cardboard boxes.
The Aggression Scale is a welcome surprise from here on in, with Owen and Lloyd taking it in turns to outsmart each other. There’s more than enough blood for the gore hounds to savour, even if Miller does pull a few punches along the way, and there’s plenty of fun to be had in watching the hitmen come unstuck. Owen carries the film pretty well for a teenage lead, and the fact that he doesn’t have any dialogue probably helps his cause. It would’ve been nice if they’d given Lauren a little less to say in the second act, but having said that, she does get better as her relationship with Owen improves. I wasn’t convinced Ashbrook was the right choice for lead villain at first but he just about nails it, as do the rest of his cronies, who make the most of their thankless roles.
Miller’s direction is solid and the script is smart enough not to get carried away. There was a chance it could’ve become absurd as the mayhem escalated, but Miller shows great restraint throughout, even if he does slip into Final Destination territory for the final kill. Of course, in keeping it real he may have missed a trick or two. There is a chance he could’ve won a larger audience had he gone to the other extreme. An all out gore-fest could’ve been a lot of fun, whilst single-handedly laying the memory of Macaulay Culkin to rest. As it stands, The Aggression Scale is an unexpected surprise with a gleefully twisted ending.
Some thing’s are not what they seem, and even though it won’t change the world, Steven C. Miller’s mash up of Home Alone and Rambo does more than enough to keep you engaged. Not bad for a 'lame martial arts movie'. AW