We all like to think of ourselves as living during the “nadir” of human culture—rock bottom. It’s a new low, we keep thinking. Things couldn’t possibly get more disgusting and appalling. I mean, look at the movies we’re making: violent and filled with retribution and revenge.
Well, my friends, I have news for you. It’s all pretty old hat. Today we’re going to talk about revenge movies and the centuries-old tradition of violent revenge stories—as old as civilization itself. The revenge drama is an ancient literary form, with features of it in the Bible as well as ancient Roman theater. And those Roman plays featured some pretty nasty stuff: adultery, murder, cannibalism, ghosts, madness, and lots more fun things like that.
The revenge play was also a popular theme during Shakespeare’s time. In fact, one of the bloodiest plays of that era was from the Bard himself: Titus Andronicus. That play is rife with violence and gore. It is widely considered one of Shakespeare’s worst plays, but it was tremendously popular with audiences when it premiered back in the 1590s. So think about that.
Just relax, tut-tutters. Revenge dramas are long-standing elements of our shared cultural heritage. And probably because they are so satisfying to watch. After a day of dealing with idiots on the road, in the office, or on the train, a hurly-burly action-packed drama about a hero exacting revenge on evil-doers can be just what the doctor ordered.
Remember how much you enjoyed Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves partnered together in The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions? They’re back in this rip-roaring action-packed thrill ride. If you’ve avoided watching this because you didn’t see the first John Wick (2014), don’t worry about it. The first was pretty forgettable. In it, John Wick comes out of retirement when a gangster’s son steals his car and kills his dog, a pet that had been the last gift from Wick’s beloved dying wife. John Wick ends up taking on the entire mob because of the irresponsible gangster’s son. Kids today.
John Wick: Chapter 2 has a bit more going for it in terms of plot and character development. A bit. Not a lot, but a bit. John Wick at least finds his stolen Mustang in a chop shop, but gets pulled back into the life of an assassin, and violent hijinks ensue. Now is all of this kind of stupid? Yes! Did that in any way hinder my immense enjoyment of the goings-on in this movie? Absolutely not. This is not a sensitive coming-of-age story. This is a revenge drama. And Keanu Reeves’s semi-inarticulate acting style works perfectly here. Whoa…
I’m not a big Quentin Tarantino fan. I will acknowledge he has great skills as a filmmaker and every one of his movies has a lot of style. They just always strike me as empty. He doesn’t have a lot to say other than Check this out, people! I’m making a stylishly-violent movie. That, however, works here. Uma Thurman plays a woman out for revenge in this wildly entertaining two-part martial arts story of revenge. She is after the people who tried to kill her and her unborn child. Or something like that. I recently rewatched this movie and its sequel after reports of Thurman’s shabby and dangerous treatment during the filming of this movie. I came to admire her performance here even more…and now curl my upper lip in disdain whenever I hear Tarantino mentioned. Okay, fine, he apologized.
Spike Lee did a remake of this South Korean action movie. Ignore it. This is the one to watch! Directed by Chan-wook Park, this is the second part of a trilogy (the first part being Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and the conclusion being Lady Vengeance (2005)). I’ve only seen this one, and it’s fantastic. This is a thrilling action story of a man who had been kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years and is now is seeking vengeance on his captors for holding him and murdering his wife. It’s dazzling and definitely worth a rental. All three movies are available on dvd.com. See how lucky you are to be a subscriber?
Never heard of this one? That’s ok; it’s an adrenaline-pumping film in which Jodie Foster plays a meek public radio host who, along with her boyfriend, is beaten one night while walking through Central Park. Her boyfriend dies, and she illegally buys a gun. This is a festival of political incorrectness in the grand tradition of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish (1974), and you’ll end up cheering as Foster’s character goes around killing robbers and bad guys around New York City. I LOVE this movie.
This movie is based on that not-so-good TV series from the 1980s of the same name. The Equalizer stars Denzel Washington as a retired CIA black ops master living a quiet life in Boston and working in a home improvement megastore. He sees a young teenage prostitute being roughed up by some Russian Mafia types, and, oops, there goes his nice quiet life. There’s a close combat action sequence early on in the Mafia boss’s office that is just spectacular. Washington is outstanding in this movie.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.