Tom Jolliffe with another ten essential revenge films…
Are you not entertained? No? Then you need some hardy revenge to pass some time. The revenge formula (served chilled, straight from the fridge or something) has remained popular for well over half a century. There’s something about that trigger of a protagonist who has been wronged (or even sometimes an antagonist) that has often been a reliable starting point to kick off a film. Whether large scale epics, or down and dirty action B pictures, revenge is a tasty dish and there are no signs of the sub-genre becoming any less popular. The fact a film so formulaic as Taken became such a phenomenon 12 years ago, tells you much.
Speaking of a pop cultural phenomenon, we have John Wick. Much like Taken, it was a fairly small scale film and not always confidently targeting even a theatrical release. In the latter, Liam Neeson wasn’t particularly recognised as an action man, nor box office magnet, whilst Keanu Reeves at the dawn of Wick was coming off a string of box office flops. Both hit it big though, and whilst as a franchise Taken got progressively worse, John Wick remained consistent and immortalised a new brand of action that many are now imitating (though Taken did popularise Krav Maga). The first film blew away an image we’d oft associated with Reeves. That of either the all round good egg, or virtuous (if occasionally) dim nice guy. His action films never saw him get dark, or mean (he has played antagonists rather well in other films though, like The Gift or Neon Demon). Wick was different and Reeves was intense. In addition, thanks to the direction of Chad Stahelski (aided in part 1 by David Leitch), and a great world building screenplay by Derek Kolstad, the film really clicked with people. The first film has the most dramatic heft, and the action is great. The sequels upped the ante brilliantly and expanded the world to near fantastical (but enjoyable) levels.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
This iconic and absolutely brilliant horror concept tapped into the world of nightmares and threatened the sanctity of slumber. For all the excellence as a horror film, at the heart of this film is a revenge story, with the films antagonist Fred Krueger killing Elm Street kids in their sleep. Why? They’re the offspring of the residents who hunted renowned child killer Krueger down and burnt him alive in his boiler room. He targets their kids for revenge from beyond the grave, existing within their nightmares. A whole, and rather eclectic, franchise was born, even though the first film remains a stone wall classic.
For many years this stood among films like Captain America (the Albert Pyun version in 1990) and The Phantom as an example of a general audience apathy toward comic book pictures that weren’t Bat or Krypton related. A film which ended up straight to video in the States thanks to the collapse of a distributor, and was initially greeted largely with derision. In time passed, it’s gained a lot more cult appeal, as genre fans have atypically now come more to terms with creative license when it comes to adapting their favourite comics. The contentious lack of a skull, among other decisions skewing away from source (though largely, it is still a fairly close adaptation of one of Marvels more simplistic properties), is something people don’t get too riled about these days (thank you to the original X-Men film for turning the tide). The Punisher is straight up revenge at heart, and this adaptation stays very true to that. This film however feels less comic book and more Ozploitation at its core (a lot of crew from The Road Warrior worked on this) and part of why this is receiving more favourable revisionism. Dolph Lundgren makes an effectively withdrawn and soulless hero. He’s rough around the edges, in an early performance, but he has some good moments in this, particularly when opposite Louis Gossett Jnr and Jeroen Krabbe. In an era now without that many great comic book villains (often a weak point for me in the MCU, Thanos not withstanding), this has two in Krabbe and a wonderfully villainous Kim Miyori. Stuffed with action, and fight scenes that were ahead of their time (and a great display of Lundgren’s martial arts prowess, we too rarely see) this is the most lithe and efficient of the three movies so far. Cheese aside, it also has some subtle moments that are very effective (as well as an opening which Besson paid homage to in Leon, and a finale which had a tip of the cap from Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol.1).
Ridley Scott’s epic re-popularised a virtually dead genre, with nothing quite matching its effectively old fashioned take on ancient Rome. It’s a straight down the middle tale of betrayal and revenge, with Ridley Scott as Maximus seeking vengeance against Commodus, recently usurping his father to the throne, and killing Maximus’ family in the process too. It’s an epic journey through the gladiatorial circuit, with that lust for revenge continually growing. Scott’s film is brutally violent, visually stunning (as per) and aided by a classic score from Hans Zimmer. Crowe and Phoenix are exceptional and there’s great support from the late Oliver Reed and Richard Harris.
Clint Eastwood’s brilliant revisit to the Western genre ended up being one of his biggest critical hits and Oscar bait. Eastwood stars and directs. He’s an aging gunslinger hired to exact revenge after a prostitute is disfigured by a henchman working for Little Bill (Gene Hackman). Eastwood really honed and perfected his directorial prowess here, and gave one of his best performances (in a role that really suited his mature years). The film looks magnificent and marked the best Western since Leone was knocking them out (with Eastwood among others) and the support cast including Richard Harris, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman is wall to wall gravitas. There’s some great action scenes too, short, sharp and to the point.
Cape Fear saw Martin Scorsese, fresh off the success of Goodfellas, in somewhat playful mood. He remade an iconic revenge film, updated for modern audiences. Scorsese loaded his B picture with style and flair, really looking to experiment whilst throwing in some nice Hitchcockian stylistic flourishes. De Niro, as Max Cady, is intense, enigmatic and playful as the released con seeking revenge on the defence lawyer who failed (not by accident) to keep him out of jail. It’s a magnificently antagonistic turn and De Niro relishes in this ability to let loose almost as much as Scorsese does behind the camera. The other cast members, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and a young Juliette Lewis who are all targeted by Cady, are also excellent. This is a perfect, and wonderfully shlocky filler that is so inimitably Scorsese. It doesn’t have the depth or restrain of his best works, but this is all about the thrills and the fun.
Greeted with a little controversy upon its release, this dark and unsettling thriller saw a young Ellen Page give a supreme performance as a young girl who lays a trap for a 30-something man who has inappropriate interactions with minors. After she tricks him and drugs him, trapped in a precarious position, she slowly digs into his behaviour and as an audience we unearth just whether he’s inappropriate or disgustingly nefarious in his attraction to very young girls. Despite some dark and disturbing scenes, the film never goes overboard, and the dynamic between captor and captive is enthralling as Hayley sets out to teach the guy a lesson and wring a confession out of him over one of his prior victims.
Out For Justice
Something about the art of dishing out revenge, just lends itself to the towering and stoic presence of Steven Seagal. A long time exponent of serving up vengeance, his prowess is perhaps never exemplified better than in Out For Justice. When his best friend is killed in cold blood in the street by a former childhood friend, Gino (Seagal) forgoes the rules as a cop, and tears his neighbourhood asunder looking for Richie (played with as much relish as anyone has ever played a reprehensible, irredeemable fucker, by William Forsythe). It’s pure and simple and packed with bone crunching fight scenes which perfectly captured the imposing power Seagal had at the time. The highlight, besides a final showdown, is a bar sequence that ranks as the best bar room brawl ever committed to film, with Seagal almost impossibly badass.
This classic action drama would launch a franchise that ventured progressively away from subtle deconstruction of Nam era PTS suffering vets, and lent more heavily into shirtless, run and gun theatrics. It made Stallone a bona fide action legend, but First Blood remains more about the drama than the collection of impressive and grounded set pieces that run through the film. As the icon, John Rambo, Stallone is complex as he’s probably ever been, as a character so often just simmering below the point of boiling over. He’s pushed once and ends up jailed. He escapes and the persistence of those hunting him eventually leads to him breaking completely and seeking revenge. The film culminates in Rambo on a wrecking spree through the shitberg little town that has shit on him. Then finally, after his stoic façade and defensive aggression are stripped away, all that is left is the vulnerability of a broken down war machine, and Stallone captures that inner turmoil spewing out so beautifully. Alongside Rambo is the prideful, hard bitten local Sheriff Teasle, played exceptionally well by the late Brian Dennehy who has his own personal vendetta against the escaped prisoner who first shows him up, then contributes to the death of one of his oldest friends and deputies.
Straw Dogs, which for a number of years was banned, is a slow burning drama with mild mannered and bookish American, Dustin Hoffman moving to a rural British village (with his young English wife) and being targeted for progressively more vicious harassment from the locals. Eventually he’s pushed too far and snaps, leading to a continuing escalation of violence when it becomes kill or be killed. He becomes immune to the restrain empathy places as a barrier to take life, having had it eroded from within by the torment. Peckinpah stages action with brutal effectiveness, most of which takes place in a finale loaded with powerful moments (with no shortage of his inimitable slow motion and ground-breaking action editing).
SEE ALSO: 10 Essential Revenge Films
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Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.