It’s always tempting to seek retribution for the wrongs that someone has done you. It’s tempting because the universe takes too long, if at all, to even the score with individuals. Sometimes taking matters into your own hands can lead you to run up the scoreboard, so to speak, inflicting more harm on your victim than intended. You could rationalize that unbalance as giving back more and better than what your were given, but the scales have to be equal.
Revenge films have a certain catharsis about them. Even when the protagonist seeking retribution is bad through-and-through, there’s some part of the viewer that empathizes enough to root for him or her. Back in the 1970s, cinema was undergoing an angry period with themes of retribution being pervasive in many films that rose during that era. But how good the revenge film is depends not just on the story, but the revenge seeker’s reasons for doing so in the first place.
In most recent revenge films lists, you frequently see movies such as John Wick (2014) and Man on Fire (2004) listed. Well, not here. My top 10 list of revenge flicks includes movies where the theme of vengeance was merely a side notion and not a central theme. The order of the films is ranked in terms of the severity (least to severe) of the offense that led to revenge. Some of these include spoilers, so look no further if you haven’t seen any of these films. But this is an article, so take a look anyway.
Protagonist: Jeremy Melton
Reason For Revenge: Physical and emotional humiliation. Back when he was a middle school student, Jeremy Melton was cruelly rebuffed by all of the hot girls one night during a school dance. Then one girl, wanting to fit in with the hot girls, outright and falsely accuses Jeremy of sexual assault, leading to him being beaten and humiliated by the school bullies present. He’s later expelled and sent away to a reform school. Over a decade later, he seeks gruesome revenge on the women who partook in the event that destroyed his life.
Thoughts: Believe me, I understand the desire to seek retribution against people for what they said or did to me during school days. I struggle with it even today. Being dateless and ignored by girls during my teens and early adulthood, I totally empathize with Jeremy Melton and what he did to get even. He could’ve just confronted the women and told them what they did and how it affected him, but given their characterization of having superficial and haughty attitudes, I don’t think they’d be receptive to maturity. So yeah, they had to die. Watching the creative ways in which he killed them was like a surrogate for some of the remnant adolescent rage that’s still in me, reserved for some of the people whom I never retaliated against during my school days.
CAPE FEAR (1991)
Protagonist: Max Cady
Reason For Revenge: False imprisonment. Max Cady was an illiterate drifter in Atlanta when he was charged with severe rape and battery. His public defender was Sam Bowden, who discovered evidence that Cady’s victim was promiscuous, having had at least three lovers in the month leading to Cady’s arrest. This fact could’ve gotten Cady acquitted, but Bowden, having a crisis on conscience, buried it in the file without ever revealing it to the prosecution. Cady is subsequently incarcerated for fourteen years, during which time he suffered at the hands of inmates whom he categorized as “less than human”. At the end of his sentence, he is a muscular, tattooed, literate, Bible quoting superhuman madman set on destroying the lawyer whose choice cost him dearly.
Thoughts: Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear wasn’t a simple revenge story, it was one with moral and legal complexities added to it. Legally, Sam Bowden should be disbarred and even incarcerated for deliberately failing to provide his client with the full zealous representation he was entitled to. But Cady was a menace, he actually told Bowden that he beat two prior aggravated rape charges before he represented him. Morally, Bowden did the right thing sending Cady to prison. He just never counted on Cady being released, let alone learning how to read and have an encyclopedic knowledge of jurisprudence. He sure as hell didn’t think Cady would ever find out about the supressed evidence. Cady did take it too far, though. He killed Bowden’s dog, his housekeeper, a few colleagues, and even connected with Bowden’s daughter so as to accelerate her sexual maturation to her father’s dismay. Robert De Niro played Max Cady in an Oscar-nominated performance that’s been parodied many times over.
Protagonist: John “Axe” Adcox
Reason For Revenge: Political manipulation. Chicago alderman Martin Swayzak is running for mayor on the platform of downsizing the Chicago Fire Department. He’s had several firehouses closed which has left the CFD with less and less manpower and led to deaths of several firefighters. It’s later discovered the Swayzak commissioned some businessmen to create a false manpower study about the CFD that he used to justify the firehouse closures. Once shut down, the firehouses would be converted into community centers with the businessmen receiving the contracts for the construction. One firefighter, John “Axe” Adcox found about the scheme and decided to literally bring the heat to all involved.
Thoughts: Though the movie is about the relationship between two brothers in the Chicago Fire Department, the film has crime drama aspects represented by the arson murders of the aforementioned businessmen. Adcox (played by Scott Glenn) is a veteran firefighter and doesn’t take it well when city politicians interfere in his department’s business. He uses his knowledge of combustion to create quick backdrafts that kill only his intended targets and then quickly snuff themselves out. Though he manages to kill all three of the businessmen, Axe himself dies in the film’s final inferno scene. But Swayzak’s deceit is publicly revealed at the end and his political ambitions are destroyed, giving Adcox and the Fire Department at least some measure of revenge.
Protagonist: Alejandro Gillick
Reason For Revenge: Family murdered. Alejandro Gillick was a prosecuting attorney in Colombia when he ran afoul of a brutal Mexican drug cartel. When he got too close, the cartel killed his wife and four-year-old daughter, beheading the former while throwing the latter into a vat of acid. Gillick is destroyed, but becomes a feared assassin working for the Medellín cartel, eventually loaning himself to the CIA for a chance to avenge his family.
Thoughts: Sicario is an action-drama with a cynical anti-drug policy message. Alejandro’s revenge against the Mexican cartel is central to delivering that message. The CIA wants the Mexican cartel wiped out so that the drug trade is back in the hands of only the Medellín cartel. In their hands, it’s more manageable for American law enforcement. Getting to personally kill the head of the Mexican cartel (Fausto Alarcón) is an added bonus for Alejandro. Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro is a killer of tranquil fury, sneaking his way into Alarcón’s mansion and working his way to where the family (Alarcón, his wife, and their sons) are having dinner. In a scene that’s still shocking even now, Alejandro shot the wife and sons dead, mere moments before killing Alarcón himself who witnessed his family quickly and brutally killed.
Protagonist: Lorenzo “Shakes” Carcaterra, Tommy Marcano, John Reilly, and Michael Sullivan
Reason For Revenge: Physical and sexual abuse. Lorenzo “Shakes” Carcaterra, Tommy Marcano, John Reilly, and Michael Sullivan are four boys from Hell’s Kitchen who get sent to a reform school after a summer prank went horribly wrong. While there, they’re subjected to repeated verbal, physical, and sexual abuse from a quartet of guards, led by Sean Nokes (played by Kevin Bacon). Over a decade later, the boys are all grown men and remain friends. Michael is a New York district attorney, Shakes is a reporter, while John and Tommy are violent gang leaders. One night, John and Tommy randomnly encounter Nokes in a pub and shoot him dead. From there, their friends and associates do what they can to acquit them in a court of law while seeking revenge on the remaining guards and the institution that employed them.
Thoughts: The real Lorenzo Carcaterra has insisted that his novel from which the movie was based is a true story. Considering how things progressed after Nokes’ death in the film, it seems implausible that that period is true. However, Kevin Bacon’s character was a truly depraved individual who didn’t bat an eyelash at the horror he perpetrated. Him and his cohorts were sick individuals who all deserved the coups de grâce that they got. His character’s death, being shot to death in the restaurant by two individuals he regularly abused, is considered one of the best revenge scenes ever done.
KILL BILL: VOL. 1-2 (2003-2004)
Protagonist: Beatrix Kiddo (aka “The Bride” and “Black Mamba”)
Reason For Revenge: Attempted murder. Beatrix Kiddo was a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. A trained killer, inside and out, she leaves the Vipers and her lover, Bill (the head of the assassins and her lover) and begins a new life. On the day of her wedding, the Vipers break in and start massacring the wedding party in the chapel, and Bill shoots Kiddo in the head, putting her in a coma. She awakens, she’s a roaring weapon of revenge.
Thoughts: One thing this film embedded in pop culture was that you never mess with a bride on her wedding day. And Beatrix Kiddo had perhaps the kind of outcome much worse than what even Murphy’s Law could conceive. Beatrix was genuinely scary in her quest for vengeance. What added to it was that she thought her child with Bill was killed when he shot her (she lived and Bill was raising her in the years Beatrix was in a coma). Not even burying her alive could keep her down. Deadly with a sword and her martial arts skills, if she put the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” on you, it’s over.
Protagonist: Dr. Peyton Westlake (aka “Darkman”)
Reason For Revenge: Attempted murder. Peyton Westlake was a scientist developing a synthetic skin for burn victims. He’s frustrated that he can’t make the skin last past 99 minutes. His girlfriend, Julie, is an attorney who came across an incriminating document proving that one of her clients has been bribing city officials. One night, Peyton is on the verge of a breakthrough with his synthetic skin when thugs break into his laboratory in search of the document. The find it, but beat and torture Peyton and leave him to die in an explosion. Peyton’s burned beyond recognition, and then had his mind and body altered by a life-saving experimental medical procedure. With his old life destroyed, he becomes a vigilante out to inflict revenge on the criminals who disfigured him.
Thoughts: Peyton Westlake had his life forcibly burned away all over a document that his girlfriend left in his laboratory, a document which he had no knowledge about. The criminals ransacked his laboratory/home, smashed his face through glass cabinets, killed his lab assistant right in front of him, burned his hands to a crisp on electrical transformers, dunked him head-first into a vat of volatile acid, and then on top of all that, rigged an explosion which left most of his body with third degree burns. Then the hospital doctors severed his nerves which conduct pain, which also left him with no sense of touch (he has uncontrolled rage, adrenaline rushes, and superhuman strength to compensate). It’s easy to see why he wants revenge on the criminals who left him to die, but it would’ve been interesting if he took a run at the doctors who saved his life as well as his girlfriend who unwittingly brought this fate onto him.
THE WRAITH (1986)
Protagonist: Jamie Hankins/Jake Kesey/The Wraith
Reason For Revenge: Murder. Jamie Hankins was having sex with his girlfriend, Keri, when the local drag-racing gang led by Packard Walsh decided to interrupt. Packard wanted Keri for himself and personally led the attack on Jamie, beating and stabbing him to death. He and his gang then put Jamie’s dead body in the trunk of a Dodge sedan and pushed it off of a cliff, causing it to explode. Jamie is later mysterious reincarnated into two forms: A care-free motorcycling young adult named Jake Kesey and the Wraith, who resembles an extraterrestrial racer with a super-charged Dodge Turbo Interceptor. It’s in the latter identity where exacts his revenge on Packard’s gang, eliminating them one-by-one in deadly drag races.
Thoughts: The film was never heralded as much as it should’ve been, but its cult following will suffice. Though I wish they came up with a more detailed origin story for the title character, his motive and methods for revenge are satisfying. He’s taking out Packard’s gang not just because they killed him, but because they robbed him of being with his true love. In the end, the Wraith gets both. He kills Packard and his gang, reveals himself to his girlfriend, and then leaves his car with his brother, who wouldn’t be blamed for the Wraith’s actions since he was seen in plain sight when the Wraith and his car first publicly appeared. The Wraith, now Jake, rides off with his girlfriend into the moonlight at the end.
DEATH WISH (1974)
Protagonist: Paul Kersey
Reason For Revenge: Home Invasion. Paul Kersey was an architectural designer living in New York City with his wife, Joanna, and their adult daughter, Carol. One night, both ladies are followed home by thugs who then invade their apartment. They sexually assault both women and kill Joanna. Paul gradually expresses his grief when he learns more about handing his firearms. Then his grief turns to anger, which doesn’t bode well for criminals. Paul then becomes a vigilante, putting a fatal stop to the violent criminal element.
Thoughts: Death Wish has a higher placement here because it was one of the earliest examples of the vengeful 1970s anti-hero archetype. Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and The Punisher comic series, Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey became the face of the vengeance in 1970s cinema. Any film in which you see a family man (or woman) exact revenge for someone hurting their family is inspired by Death Wish. Eye For an Eye (1996) and Secret In Their Eyes (2015) owe much to Death Wish.
THE CROW (1994)
Protagonist: Eric Draven
Reason For Revenge: Murder. Musician Eric Draven came home to his fiancé, Shelly Webster, only to find their apartment in shambles and her being raped and assaulted by four men. The four men stab, shoot, and defenestrate Eric to his death. Shelly dies from her injuries hours later. Exactly a year after his death, a supernatural crow resurrects Eric to take vengeance on those who killed him. Now impervious to harm and armed with psychometry, Eric dons leather attire and Harlequin makeup to seek out the men who killed him and his bride-to-be.
Thoughts: The premise isn’t new, but the execution (no pun intended) is still flawless. The gothic overtones, the dark and rainy streets of Detroit, and the poetic justice with which Draven uses to exact his gory revenge is extremely gratifying. He’s on borrowed time, however. Once he eliminates those who murdered him, he himself has to return to the land of the dead.