Monday, June 30, 2014

11 Great Revenge Movies

by Patrick Bromley
Let's all bring an end to #Junesploitation by digging two graves.

I love revenge movies. Like the Buddy Cop genre, the revenge genre is one in which I could watch almost any entry. I can't articulate exactly why it appeals to me so much. I guess it's just an endless desire to see my enemies punished.

Here are a few of my favorite revenge movies. First person to say "You forgot..." will get what's comin'.

1. Munich (2005, dir. Steven Spielberg) Munich, 1972. Eleven Israeli athletes are kidnapped and murdered during the 1972 Summer Olympics. In retaliation, a squad of Mossad assassins are dispatched to track and kill those responsible. Steven Spielberg's dramatic retelling of these events (which, according to Yuval Aviv's book Vengeance, are all true) is a brilliant thriller and a sad meditation on loss and the erosion of the soul. It's a revenge movie that works as well on a visceral level as on a philosophical one, with Spielberg creating some of tensest set pieces of his career without losing sight of the toll the cycle takes on all of its participants (that last shot is pretty hard to misinterpret). Yes, the climactic slow-mo sex scene is overwrought, but one miscalculation does not undo what is one of the best works of 2000s-era (era) Spielberg. Besides, he's always had trouble sticking the landing.
2. Unforgiven (1992, dir. Clint Eastwood) Looking at some other "revenge movie" lists online revealed that The Outlaw Josey Wales is often named as one of the best of the genre, but I'd give the advantage to Unforgiven not just for what it has to say about revenge but also for what it has to say about all of Eastwood's westerns -- including The Outlaw Josey Wales. I love that when the movie starts out, Will Munny is just revenge for hire; it doesn't get personal until later. And yet revenge is still revenge, and violent men are still violent men. Deserve's got nothing to do with it. One of the last great westerns also looks like it's going to be Eastwood's last great movie...unless my fellow A Perfect World lovers start speaking up.
3. Point Blank (1967, dir. John Boorman) The first of several adaptations of Donald Westlake's novel The Hunter is still the best, starring Lee Marvin as Walker, a criminal betrayed by his partner and girlfriend and left for dead. Boorman directs the movie as half desolate and spare, half dizzy head trip -- it's the existential crime movie that might actually be about something more spiritual than a single viewing would suggest (the first time I read that the film might be taking place in Walker's purgatory it blew my mind). Not as well known as it ought to be outside of movie geek circles and worth of being called a classic. Remade in 1999 as Payback, which is also worth seeing.

4. I Saw the Devil (2011, dir. Kim Jee-woon) If not for the movie at the bottom of this list, Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil might be my favorite revenge movie ever made. Lee Byung-hun plays a good man whose fiancee is murdered by a serial killer (Choi Min-sik), inspiring a long game of cat-and-mouse torture that's both fascinating and very hard to watch (the movie is not for the squeamish). Brutal and ultimately devastating, I Saw the Devil is brilliantly directed -- kinetic, violent and almost unbearably intense. It arrives at essentially the same conclusions as a lot of other revenge movies, but the way it arrives there is really something.
5. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, dir. Nicholas Meyer) I have written before about my love of this, the best of all Star Trek things ever produced. It remains one of my favorite movies more for the way it explores the crew of Enterprise in their later years, but it's a great revenge story, too -- Ricardo Montalban's Khan is a man with a thirst for vengeance that is positively Shakespearean. It's the rare revenge movie (it was originally called The Vengeance of Khan) in which it's the antagonist out for payback, but it's treated as more than just a generic character motivation. Khan's anger is justified, and part of what makes Star Trek II great is that it recognizes that fact. Many revenge movies focus on the spiritual toll such a quest takes. This one is more about the human cost, made that much more powerful when it's paid by people we've come to know and love for decades.

6. Freaks (1932, dir. Tod Browning) One of the best pre-code horror movies tells the story of a con artist (Olga Baclanova) traveling with a sideshow who tries to marry and murder a little person (Harry Earles) to collect his inheritance. Most of the movie plays as a bizarre drama (rather than relying on makeup or special effects, Browning cast actual circus freaks) until the climax when it turns into a horrifying, awesome revenge movie. Part of the movie's very special genius is that the titular "freaks" earn their revenge without ever losing our sympathy. One of us. One of us.
7. The Limey (1999, dir. Steven Soderbergh) Wonderfully lean, two-fisted Soderbergh effort stars Terence Stamp as an aging criminal who is released from prison and comes to Los Angeles to burn down the motherfuckers who killed his daughter. Great performance from Stamp, who plays the cockney Wilson as a pit bull, plus good character turns from Peter Fonda, Luis Guzman, Lesley Anne Warren and Vanishing Point's Barry Newman. Soderbergh's typically off-kilter approach to the narrative makes (Point Blank is a clear influence) makes this one of the great underrated crime pictures of the late '90s/early 2000s. It's worth tracking down on DVD just to hear Soderbergh's contentious commentary with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, who expresses displeasure with how the director interpreted his material.
8. Coffy (1973, dir. Jack Hill) Seminal blaxploitation movie gives Pam Grier the role of a lifetime as Coffy, a nurse who goes on a roaring rampage of revenge against the criminals and dealers who got her sister hooked on drugs. One of Jack Hill's best movies has attitude and energy to spare and still feels edgy even in 2014. Pam Grier is a fucking force of nature, equally capable at beating the shit out of men as she is at seducing them. She hides weapons in her hair, for crying out loud. This is a tough, badass movie that manages to be a lot of fun without compromising its bloodthirsty hardness. Revenge has never been this cool. Or insanely hot.

9. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (aka Lady Vengeance) (2005, dir. Park Chan-wook) The revenge movie subgenre is practically a staple of Korean cinema, and few filmmakers made more or better revenge movies than Park Chan-wook. His "Vengeance Trilogy," which includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and this, another brilliant look at the devastation caused by random acts of violence and devoting oneself to revenge. The narrative is such that it takes its time to crystallize what's really going on, but the movie only gets better and better as it does. The film is shattering -- all of the "Vengeance Trilogy" is -- but Park earns every agonized drop of blood spilled and every tear that follows.
10. Revenge (1990, dir. Tony Scott) Dismissed as slick trash when it was released in 1990, Tony Scott's Revenge has been reevaluated in the almost 25 years (!) since it hit theaters and is finally being accepted for the cool, nasty movie it is and not the Kevin Costner star vehicle everyone wanted it to be. K-Cost is a retired pilot who vacations at the home of his crime boss friend (Anthony Quinn) and ends up falling in love with/fucking his wife (Madeline Stowe). That doesn't go over well. Scott's usual approach of style over substance serves him well here, turning the film into a kind of dark, violent Harlequin romance in which the beauty of the actors and the photography masks a casual ugliness underneath. The denouement remains offensive in its misogyny and the way it trivializes AIDS, but it somehow all fits in with the movie's melodrama aesthetic. It's like Tony Scott mashed together a Douglas Sirk movie from the '50s with '70s exploitation and a '90s music video. The director's cut is actually 20 minutes shorter (reportedly Costner insisted on some of the additional material), and that's the only one available on Blu-ray.

11. Kill Bill (2004, dir. Quentin Tarantino) This is my all-time favorite revenge movie -- an epic pastiche of every revenge movie that came before it that comments on such pursuits while making sure we have a blast watching The Bride (Uma Thurman) get bloody satisfaction. It's violent and fun and action-packed in that super-stylized, referential Tarantino way, but a couple of major plot twists make the film surprisingly moving and poignant. The original theatrical release, which split the film into two (very different) parts, dulls the impact. This is meant to be seen as on massive four-hour movie. Here's hoping it eventually gets released as such. Every year, Kill Bill sneaks higher and higher on my list of favorite movies.

11 More Revenge Movies worth seeking out: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, dir. Sergio Leone); Man on Fire (2004, dir. Tony Scott); The Big Heat (1953, dir. Fritz Lang); Oldboy (2003, dir. Park Chan-wook), Rolling Thunder (1977, dir. John Flynn), Cape Fear (1962, dir. J. Lee Thompson/1991, dir. Martin Scorsese); Johnny Handsome (1989, dir. Walter Hill); Hard Candy (2005, dir. David Slade); Blue Ruin (2014, dir. Jeremy Saulnier); The Great Silence (1968, dir. Sergio Corbucci); Red, White & Blue (2010, dir. Simon Rumley)


  1. I almost went with "Point Blank" as my Junesploitation! Revenge pick, and your description kind-of makes me wish I'd gone with that instead of "The Brave One." Oh well, gotta save some for next year's Junesploitation! festivities.

  2. You promise 11 and deliver 22! F This Movie quality standards are through the roof!

    I'm just gonna say "You forgot Drive Angry!" to find out what kind of vengeance I'll get.

    1. Patrick will drink sugar-free Monster energy drink out of your skull. In 3D.

  3. Great list! I wrote about Park Chan Wook as a director, centring around on modern South Korean politics and vengeance. I chose to focus on Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. Like you Lady Vengeance is my favourite. I think Oldboy is a brilliant film, there are so many layers there to pick apart. Lady Vengeance though is in there with my favourite films (along with Kill Bill). I would like to transfer some my ideas in my essay to a blog at some point as there as so many things to talk about that film it is hard to know where to start!

  4. I am kind of pumped to see you liked Revenge so much. I've almost watched it many times but its tepid reception always kept me from seeing it.

    I'll be the guy who says A Perfect World is a great movie.

    Sorry to make this all Costner Comments.

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