The thirst for revenge is one of the basest of human emotions. As such, it has naturally made great fodder for plenty of movies over the decades, including this week’s theatrical release of ‘Taken 2’. In today’s Roundtable, let’s sort through some of our favorite examples of films with this theme.
Revenge movies are the lifeblood of action cinema. If you’re ever at a loss to create a story for an action movie, a simple dash of revenge should do the trick. It’s easy to root for a guy who’s recklessly dangerous if he has good reason to be. Usually, family members get killed, which sends the protagonist into a rage that can only be quelled by killing the people responsible.
When it comes to Biblical “eye for an eye” cinema, I’m always drawn to ‘Man on Fire‘. Watching Creasy “paint his masterpiece” of death is quite enjoyable. Tony Scott’s frantic, ultra-stylized photography works well. (Believe it or not, I don’t mind the shaky-cam in this one.) Nobody does the badass stare like Denzel (he’s maybe matched by Bruce Willis). He’s just so much fun to watch in this movie. It’s hard not to squeal when he walks into a room, because you know he’s going to kill just about everyone there at any second. It doesn’t matter that he’s putting all sorts of innocent people at risk. We don’t worry about that because his quest for revenge is pure. It’s such a simple premise, but works flawlessly when done right.
I love how revenge has become an ongoing theme in Quentin Tarantino’s films. ‘Kill Bill‘ is the grand flick that sparked it. Making the central character a female adds a great layer of unpredictability. The Bride’s revenge is fueled by a strong motive, so the film draws you in quickly. Add Tarantino’s style and you’ve got a truly remarkable film. If only he’d give us the damn ‘Whole Bloody Affair’ on Blu-ray already!
“Revenge is a dish best served cold. It is very cold… in space.” That’s right, my favorite revenge movie is none other than ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan‘. For my money, that’s still the best ‘Star Trek’ movie ever made for the big screen. Marooned on Ceti Alpha V fifteen years prior by Captain James T. Kirk, Khan Noonian Singh has had plenty of years for his rage to build by the time we first see him in the film. His first strike against Kirk is a damaging one, but later in the film, Kirk will use that rage against Khan, helping to even the odds between the two adversaries. This is one of those rare revenge movies where the main protagonist and antagonist never meet face to face (other than through viewscreen exchanges), which makes this a battle of intelligence and wits. Kirk, of course, gets the upper hand at the end… but not before the ultimate sacrifice is made.
Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)
You can’t have a list of revenge movies without a mention of the original 1978 ‘I Spit on Your Grave‘. Available now on Blu-ray, the film was daring for its time. It remains controversial today for its brutal depiction of gang rape and torture. In the movie, a writer escapes to upstate New York to work on her novel, only to be violently raped and left for dead by a group of local degenerates. The victim survives and methodically takes her revenge on each of the perpetrators. While calling it “fun to watch” might be a stretch (unless you like watching gang rape, castration without anesthesia and disembowelment by boat motor), the viewer gets a certain sense of satisfaction as the hapless victim exacts her bloody revenge. Remade in 2010 without much originality (but with more graphic depiction of violence), ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ is proof that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
I also like ‘Death Wish’ and ‘RoboCop’.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
Never has a subtitle been more appropriate than that of ‘Thriller: A Cruel Picture‘. As a child, Madeleine was so savagely raped that the ordeal left her mute. Flash-forward to her as a young woman. Madeleine remains unable to fit in, but at the rare sight of a glimmer of kindness, she lets down her guard for the first time in ages. She puts her trust in the wrong man, however; Tony forcefully injects her with heroin, again and again and again. The sweet, meek girl is dragged kicking and screaming into a life of prostitution, and becomes so hopelessly addicted that there’s nothing else she can do. She’s lost her voice. She’s lost her dignity. She’s even lost her left eye. With little else left to be stripped away, Madeleine steels herself into a killing machine to exact her revenge.
‘Thriller: A Cruel Picture’ is a grueling experience, as visceral and unflinchingly graphic as just about any movie I’ve endured over these many years. Christina Lindberg brilliantly conveys every stage of this young girl’s harrowing arc: her sincere sweetness, the torment she suffers, and the way in which she’s wholly consumed by vengeance. The film draws much of its power from how gritty and how real it is. That sense of verisimilitude certainly isn’t hurt by the use of live ammunition (!), hacking up a corpse for the eye-gouging sequence, Lindberg receiving on-camera saline injections, and even some hardcore inserts. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that, decades later, this 1973 exploitation film would go on to be one of the greatest inspirations to Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’.
Is revenge really a dish best served cold? I mean, between Kim Ji-Woon’s recent uber-violent shocker ‘I Saw the Devil‘ and Park Chan-Wook’s highly-acclaimed ‘Vengeance Trilogy‘ (which includes ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’, ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Lady Vengeance’ – all brilliant and terrifically shot films), as far as I’m concerned, revenge is a dish even better served Korean.
Whether you’re talking about William Munny, John Rambo, Eric Draven or John Matrix, one maxim is central to revenge movies: Don’t poke the bear. ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead‘ extends that theme even further: Certainly, don’t rape the bear’s brother. Clive Owen, who would later go on to rampage in ‘Sin City’, plays Will, the sleeping bear in question, and a man who’s a derelict from society. As the film moves along the brutally slow lines of a British crime drama, Will haunts the picture as a specter of his former prowess. Yet, at times, the audience can catch glimpses of a live wire in his eyes, as he seeks out a target for vengeance. Stories about revenge often contain a fatalism wherein violent characters willing and unwillingly perpetuate a cycle of violence. In ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’, the audience is normally one step ahead of the characters, and therefore ends up goading the story towards revelation, vengeance and a cold, hollow ending in ambiguity as expertly as any revenge movie that I have seen.
Since I’m in the middle of a James Bond marathon at the moment, I have Agent 007 on the brain. One of my favorite entries in the franchise is the under-appreciated ‘Licence to Kill‘, in which Bond goes off-book for an unsanctioned mission to get revenge on the nasty drug lord who fed his best friend Felix Leiter to a shark and left him for dead. At the time of its release, the movie was criticized for being too dark and nasty, and not as much light-hearted fun as the Roger Moore pictures. I think that it was just ahead of its time, and has aged very nicely. It’s an obvious precursor to the stripped-down, gritty and serious Daniel Craig era, and was easily the best Bond film of the 1980s.
Honorable Mention: ‘Revenge of the Nerds’. Because revenge movies can be funny too.
Tell us about some of your favorite revenge films in the Comments.