Vengeance is mine: Savouring some great revenge movies
Michael Caine portrays a military vet who ruthlessly avenges an old friend's death in Harry Brown. (E1 Films)
"Vengeance is mine; I will repay," saith the Lord. "Nuts to that," say Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Uma Thurman -- and now, Michael Caine. In his latest film, Harry Brown, Caine joins the ranks of movie vigilantes who won't wait for God's wrath to punish the evildoers.
An elderly widower and ex-Royal Marine, Caine's Harry Brown gets to live out a cranky pensioner's daydream as he coolly lays waste to a gang of pimps, punks and pushers infecting his rundown housing estate. Blunt and two-dimensional even as revenge fantasies go, the film makes Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino (2008) look subtle.
It also makes you nostalgic for better treatments of the revenge theme. The following is a list of some great cinematic tales of vengeance. They run the gamut from Shakespeare to Tarantino, from high art to the lowdown dirty pleasure of seeing human scum get what's coming to them.
If you're out to exact revenge, don't over-think it. You could wind up dithering like the doomed prince of Denmark in Shakespeare's tragedy. Ironically, the greatest revenge story in Western literature doesn't sate our appetite for retribution; instead, it's a supremely melancholy meditation on mortality. It also has a title role that serious young actors clamour to play. Among those who've done their Hamlet on screen: Laurence Olivier (1948), Mel Gibson (1990), Kenneth Branagh (1996) and Ethan Hawke (2000). My personal favourite is Nicol Williamson in Tony Richardson's high-strung 1969 film.
The Count of Monte Cristo
If living well is the best revenge, nobody does it better than the hero of Alexandre Dumas père's classic novel. A poor young sailor wrongly imprisoned, Edmond Dantès escapes and, with the help of a buried treasure, proceeds to remake himself as the glamorous, mysterious and super-rich count of the title. His wealth then buys him the luxury of slowly, artfully destroying the three conspirators who framed him.
An irresistible fantasy, the book (published in the 1840s) has been filmed many times. One of the earliest versions, a silent released in 1913, starred James O'Neill, father of the playwright Eugene O'Neill and an actor who built his stage career playing the role. Other notable adaptations include a 1934 Hollywood movie with Robert Donat, a 1954 French one with Jean Marais and a 1998 miniseries starring Gérard Depardieu. The latest, from 2002, had Jim Caviezel as the count. If you don't want to take the story too seriously, there's this 1975 made-for-TV fête du fromage with Richard Chamberlain.
Cape Fear (1962, 1991)
In this noir nail-biter, we get a look at what it's like to be the victims of an unstoppable avenger. Violent criminal Max Cady leaves prison and proceeds to terrorize the family of Sam Bowden, the lawyer who helped put him away. Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake offered another bravura sociopath role for Robert De Niro as Cady. But nobody could top the skin-crawling creepiness of Robert Mitchum in J. Lee Thompson's 1962 original.
Point Blank (1967)
Lee Marvin is at his laconic best in this crime thriller, playing a double-crossed thief, shot and left for dead, who engages in a relentless pursuit of his treacherous partner and the money he made off with. Director John Boorman (Deliverance) gives the pulpy material an arty visual style, exemplified in this brilliant early scene as Marvin's recovered criminal heads straight for his cheating wife and her lover (his ex-partner) like a heat-seeking missile.
Straw Dogs (1971)
How far can you push a man before he turns into a killing machine? In Sam Peckinpah's controversial drama, Dustin Hoffman plays a meek math professor who puts down the slide rule and picks up the fire poker after village ruffians rape his wife and besiege his farmhouse. Here's the original trailer for the film that critic Pauline Kael famously branded "a fascist work of art."
Death Wish (1974)
Coming at the height of a U.S. crime wave, Michael Winner's deft vigilante drama played to the fear and helplessness of ordinary citizens. Charles Bronson stars as a New York architect who starts packing heat and picking off thugs after his wife and daughter are victimized in a break-and-entry. The movie was such a hit that it spawned four sequels and turned the dour Bronson into a major box-office star. In this scene from the original film, he dispatches a pair of sleazy, switchblade-wielding subway muggers.
In his Oscar-winning western shot in Alberta, actor-director Clint Eastwood stars as an ex-gunfighter forced to exhume his buried demons after he sets out to avenge a mutilated prostitute for pay. In Eastwood's dark vision of the Wild West, there is no satisfaction in retribution and no glory in the act of murder. In the following bleak scene, a young wannabe gunslinger (Jaimz Woolvett) confronts the ugly truth of his first killing, while Eastwood's old pro offers cold comfort.
Kafka meets The Count of Monte Cristo in Park Chan-wook's mind-bending South Korean mystery. A family man (Choi Min-sik) is abducted and imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years, without knowing why. When he's released, he sets out to learn the identity and motives of his captor. As he gets closer to the truth, the tale takes on the dimensions of a Greek tragedy. It also offers up some indelible scenes, including this slow, moody battle in which the hero - fit from a 15-year regimen of shadow boxing in his cell - takes on a group of guards with just a hammer as a weapon.
Oldboy is the middle section of Park's Vengeance Trilogy, which includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.
Kill Bill: Vols. 1 & 2 (2003/2004)
Audiences and critics had mixed feelings about Quentin Tarantino's last film, the Second World War Jewish revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds, but there were no such qualms about his Kill Bill saga. Uma Thurman, Q.T.'s muse, stars as The Bride, a former assassin on a quest to avenge the massacre of her wedding party. The plot is essentially an excuse for an array of spectacular martial-arts sequences, as the Bride hacks and kicks her way toward her ultimate quarry, her lover-cum-would-be-killer, Bill (David Carradine). Here's Vol. 1's climactic swordfight in the snow between The Bride and Lucy Liu's Yakuza boss, O-Ren Ishii.
Harry Brown opens in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver on May 21.
Do you have a favourite revenge movie? Leave a comment below.
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