7. Drive Angry (2011) – Directed by Patrick Lussier
The Nicolas Cage-led “Drive Angry” may seem like a curveball, but director Patrick Lussier’s affection for B-movie jocularity gives the film a quality that many viewers may have overlooked. At it’s core, “Drive Angry” is explicitly ridiculous. The film follows John Milton (yes, that’s right—this film plays it fast and loose with on-the-cuff allusions), played by Cage with an earnest gruffness, a recent escapee from Hell. Milton is intent on avenging the death of his daughter and son-in-law by murdering flamboyant cult leader Jonah King (“Twilight”’s Billy Burke), while also saving his infant granddaughter—who is to be sacrificed in a Satanic ritual by King and his followers. Amber Heard (“The Rum Diary,” “The Ward”) and William Fichtner (“Black Hawk Down,” “Armageddon”) also co-star and play their parts fairly straight (a freshly single waitress and a servant of the Devil on a mission to take Cage’s Milton back to Hell, respectively). It’s all absolutely bonkers, but Lussier and co. never lose sight of the fact that “Drive Angry” is a cheap, dirty exploitation film. There’s excess nudity, cartoonish violence (bordering on “Looney Tunes”-level surrealness), and a scene in which Nicolas Cage drinks alcohol from a freshly-exploded human skull. If that’s not enough to draw an audience in, I don’t know what is.
6. The Horseman (2008) – Directed by Steven Kastrissios
Writer-director Steven Kastrissos’ “The Horseman” is a relatively straight-forward revenge thriller that feels like a product of the 1970s. While not directly set in the time period, the content and execution of “The Horseman” is evocative of such films as “Death Wish” or “The House on the Edge of the Park.” There’s an exploitation-film feel to the entire affair, though the grave subject material is never taken lightly. Peter Marshall plays Christian, a middle-aged, middle-class, white-collar businessman. While grieving his daughter’s mysterious death, he receives a videotape in the mail of his daughter—drugged and being raped. Driven by rage, Christian sets out on a ferocious search for answers—racking up a considerable death toll along the way to some ugly truth. On his journey, he meets a young female runaway that reminds him of his daughter. Together, they travel across the Australian outback towards what could only be an unfortunate end. Potentially the most realistically violent film on this list, “The Horseman” is bold and shocking, but feels familiar in its exploitation-revenge trappings.
5. The Man From Nowhere (2010) – Directed by Lee Jeong-beom
On the surface, Korean director Lee Jeong-beom’s “The Man From Nowhere” seems like a typical Asian crime drama—rife with organized crime, stylish gunfights, and martial arts. What sets it apart from the pack, however, is a distinguishable undercurrent of tenderness. Won Bin (“Mother,” “Taegukgi”) plays the mysterious, asocial Cha Tae-sik with a stern silence—but also with a tangible softness when interacting with So-mi, the little girl who lives next door and seemingly the only person who understands Cha Tae-sik. The film does not shy away from on-screen brutality, however stylized it might be, and Cha Tae-Sik is a purveyor of particularly angry violence when So-mi is taken out of his life under sinister circumstances. It’s an enthralling thriller, with some fantastically choreographed fights, but, more importantly, deliberately-paced emotional storytelling that allows “The Man From Nowhere” to excel.
4. Edge of Darkness (2010) – Directed by Martin Campbell
Adapted from the 1985 BBC series, “Edge of Darkness” is a dark, brooding, and brutal film that hinges on superb direction from the original series helmer Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale,” “The Mask of Zorro”) and an intensely grim performance from Mel Gibson, in his first starring role since “Signs” and “We Were Soldiers” in 2002. When his daughter is killed, Boston homicide detective Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson) hurls himself into a dangerous world of revenge, conspiracy, and political cover-ups. What should have been a comeback for the blacklisted Gibson was unfortunately overlooked and effectively relegated to “direct-to-DVD” status. It’s a shame because Campbell and Gibson capably modernize and Americanize the British serial into its own gritty identity and, in the process, manage to tell an engaging story about the dangers of looking too far behind the curtain of secrecy.
3. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) – Directed by Park Chan-wook
Any time the topic of “Korean revenge thrillers” crops up, South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film “Oldboy” invariably dominates the discussion. However, Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”–another revenge thriller released a year prior to “Oldboy”–goes inexplicably unnoticed. The first in Park Chan-wook’s thematically-connected “Vengeance Trilogy,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” spins a tale about a poor deaf-mute man (Shin Ha-Kyun) who kidnaps a young girl in order to pay for his sick sister’s kidney transplant. When the young girl dies in an accidental drowning, her grieving father begins a vengeance-fueled search for answers. Song Kang-ho (“Memories of Murder,” “The Host,” “Snowpiercer”) leads “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” as the young girl’s father—his grief and rage rarely matched in other revenge films. It’s a gripping tale of loss and vengeance and, arguably, on par or better than the much-lauded “Oldboy.”
2. Haywire (2011) – Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh’s spy revenge thriller is like much of his other work—it’s stylish and cool, in a way only Soderbergh seems to harness. His visual flair—his attention to color and crisp digital camerawork—is in full display in “Haywire”. His subversion of typical Hollywood action tropes is neatly paired with a wide, varied cast packed full of talent. Soderbergh allows MMA star Gina Carano to shine as a rough’n tumble female spy (though she never falls into the trappings of the typical “female Hollywood action role”). Carano’s chemistry with co-stars Channing Tatum (“21 Jump Street,” “Magic Mike”), Ewan McGregor (“Trainspotting,” “Big Fish”), and Michael Fassbender (“Inglorious Basterds,” “Prometheus”) is remarkable—there’s a particularly fantastic fight scene between Carano and Fassbender that very well might be the best, most realistic fight scene on film. It’s a twisty ride of shockingly realistic violence, stylish visuals, and subverted expectations and, like Soderbergh’s “Oceans 11,” it’s irresistibly fun to watch.
1. Harry Brown (2009) – Directed by Daniel Barber
What makes “Harry Brown” so effective and lasting, both as a revenge thriller and a film in its own right, is Michael Caine’s character-building performance and his ability to make audiences believe that he, elderly and inconspicuous, is capable of vengeful violence. Caine plays the eponymous Harry Brown with a beleaguered and world-wearied quietness that slowly, but surely pressurizes into despair and anger. Brown, a former Royal Marine living in a London council estate, lives his daily life surrounded by crime and those unwilling to stop said crime. When he begins losing those closest to him, Brown begins taking matters in his own hands and lays full siege to the drug-pushing, sex-abusing, murdering youth gangs that have long terrorized the area.
Like Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino,” Michael Caine is all too well aware of his age and place in the world and he carries the burden with melancholy acceptance. But it’s when Brown begins to push back that we see similarities to Caine’s roles of yore—the cold, calculating Jack Carter or Harry Palmer. His willingness to engage in callous violence is fascinating to watch, as the film bends the audience in favor of vigilante violence—one police inspector (played by the reliably great Emily Mortimer (“Lars and the Real Girl,” “Hugo”)) openly admits to the law enforcement’s inability to curb any crime.
In the end, we’re given a standard revenge thriller that is highly elevated by Michael Caine’s performance—easily one of his recent best (if not overall best). The lurid vigilante violence might drive some viewers away, but underneath the shooting, stabbing, and exploding is a film about the pains of loss and the feelings of losing control—both of oneself and of the surrounding world.Continue Reading Issue #20