Revenge. It’s a captivating topic which underpins much of humanity’s existence, and storytellers throughout the ages have spun yarns of every conceivable fashion on the subject, from cautionary tales, to morality plays, to more base-level fixes of violent gratification. And as a species, we can’t get enough of this diverse and tragic genre.
And so in honour of The Northman’s cinema release, I thought I’d throw together a short list of 7 of my personal favourite revenge flicks. For the record (and without SPOILERS!), I went to see The Northman for the always great Alexander Skarsgard, but enjoyed the whole movie. Unflinching and grim, it’s very much a vehicle for Skarsgard’s physical and glowering intensity as he moves with a single-minded purpose to avenge his slain father and rescue his mother from the clutches of his uncle. But being a Robert Eggers film, it isn’t simply an exercise in empty testosterone spraying violence, because truthfully, the blood spilling action, whilst good, is quite sparse. Making the film a more patient character study of Skarsgard’s exiled prince, quietly simmering away and carefully plotting his revenge; and the film’s clear themes of the consequences resultant from killing in order to protect your loved ones, and how violence only begets more violence in our complicated and tribal world, ensure that the story doesn’t play out in a simplified exercise of macho bravado. But for the record, I’m totally cool for macho bravado when it’s done well. No snobbery here!
And so, in no particular order, my kill list:
A Bittersweet Life by Kim Jee-woon (2005) is a brilliant South Korean neo-noir gangster story focusing on a very bad-ass piece of mob boss muscle, Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun…cool AF), a calm stoic type whose one moment of mercy finds him on the wrong side of his boss, and being disciplined in a very stringent manner e.g. a shallow grave. Too bad his associates didn’t dig deeper. Feeling his loyalty shunned, and now on a revenge mission, Sun-woo is remarkably endearing throughout, softening his arse-kicking enforcer role with a degree of naivete which inspires some serious kicked-dog vibes sympathy. Sharp looking and swift moving, this has all the suits, knives and punches to be expected from a South Korean crime film.
Super (2010). James Gunn’s pitch-black comedy is a movie I just don’t ever get bored of. Rainn Wilson plays Frank/The Crimson Bolt, a social odd duck whose interior problems are only exacerbated when Kevin Bacon sizzles into his life as the sleazy but shallowly charming pimp/drug dealer/scum bucket, Jacques, seducing Frank’s recovering drug-addict wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) away. Losing his last handful of marbles, Frank becomes a local “superhero”, doling out wrench-heavy justice, but really, all he wants is to save Sarah and to crisp some Bacon.
RoboCop (1987) The one. The only. A lot of absolute shite has been carried out in Alex Murphy’s name, including a dog shit remake, two garbage sequels and a TV show, but Verhoeven’s original movie is an absolute classic. Whilst an excellent satire of relentless corporate dominance muddying social waters and stirring up all manner of scum and bottom feeders in the process, the crux of the movie is the second-coming of Alex Murphy, a Detroit cop brutalised (like…still, even compared to today’s standards of cinematic/TV violence, BRUTALISED!) and left for dead by a notorious gang of criminals, before being selected to be shoe-horned into one of OCP’s competing law enforcement initiatives, RoboCop. Robo serves the public trust, shoots a rapist in the dick, and punches a grudging former mayor out of the window before overcoming his core programming to regain his humanity, bust a coke warehouse, savagely take down one of cinema’s best rogues galleries, and delivering a pretty nice fuck you to the suits at OCP. In the words of Emil: “I like it!”
John Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine remains, in my opinion, one of the best King translations of book to screen – well personally, it is my favourite, otherwise it wouldn’t be on this list. Naturally, a ton of material has been omitted from the great but mammoth novel, and some things have been altered (Arnie doesn’t seem to be possessed by the spirit of former owner George Lebay, but rather, is under Christine’s mechanical mojo; and some death scenes), but the revving engine of the book’s oily black heart remains intact. Full-time high school loser Arnie Cunningham finds hope, obsessive love, and a pair of chrome nuts when he stumbles upon the rusted wreck of Christine, inciting a dramatic but ultimately tragic change that turns him from timid dormouse to a cold, dispassionate, take-no-shit hard case as together they take down his high school tormentors. The cast are great, the set pieces are indelible, and where King has a tendency to ramble on, Carpenter has a gift for economic storytelling which flows smoothly, especially when behind the wheel of a 1958 Plymouth Fury.
Deadpool (2016). Yes, Wade will bust that fourth wall to tell you that his movie is a love story, and a monster movie, and who am I to argue, but Tim Miller also definitely made a revenge story. Not only does Wade get revenge on his cancer by becoming goddamn immortal, he also gets to takedown the sadistic Ajax – not the dish soap as Wade cracks, but the mutant behind the recruitment programme which made him fugly, unkillable, and ruined his relationship to his fiancé Vancessa. Plus, he also gets to win back his one true love. That’s like, three paybacks right there! Also, having been a big fan of Deadpool since Joe Kelly made him interesting all the way back in 1997, it’s nice to see Tim Miller, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Ryan Reynolds get revenge for all of us ‘pool fans by washing out the bad taste left by the previous “Deadpool” incarnation who appeared in the unwatchable shit show that was Wolverine: Origins.
Death Sentence (2007) was James Wan’s bleak and cathartically violent story of Nick Hume (a second rash of Kevin Bacon for this list), a suburban exec whose pleasantly perfect life crumbles when his eldest, and favourite, son is executed by a gang member performing an initiation rite. When the legal system fails Nick, allowing the killer to skate, he is unable to find solace in his grieving wife and younger son, and instead foolishly embarks on a revenge killing of the freed thug, which swiftly provokes the rest of the gang into targeting him and his family. It’s a straight forward film with no real surprises, but the scrappy action sequences are tense and exciting, and the grimy veneer, visceral violence, and calibre of the cast elevate it above many of these more typical revenge films.
The Crow (1994) was adapted from the 1989 comic book, and as a result, it certainly shows. This gothic, rain-saturated power fantasy centres on revenant rock star Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), ferried back from the dead by harbinger crows to seek revenge on the repugnant low lives who slain him and his fiancé. With a trendsetting industrial aesthetic full of leather, washed-out colours, flashing lights and fires, it did a far superior job (IMO, relax) of making a dangerous and dirty Gotham City than Tim Burton did with his guano-spattered Batman efforts back in ‘89 and ‘92. Plus, it has David Patrick Kelly, Ernie Hudson, and Tony Todd as the smooth-talking right-hand man to crime boss Michael Wincott. Oh, and Burn” by The Cure nails the soundtrack.
Honorary mentions that I would have liked to include but don’t want to flog a dead horse, unless I am avenging it:
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Yes, vengeance continues to thrive in entertainment as it does in life.
And if any of you seething maniacs out there are looking for more thrilling tales of vengeance, I wrote a blood-spilling, bullet-spraying neo-noir called Pigs https://www.amazon.com/Pigs-Daniel-James-ebook/dp/B07TTVMNCQ/?_encoding=UTF8&pf_rd_p=d27b498c-b40a-4a36-92cf-b0aafa3ba1ce&pd_rd_wg=mOi8t&pf_rd_r=GVX84RQ1PM3BNXMDT3TG&pd_rd_w=EUT7a&pd_rd_r=d7af05d6-2c30-4252-b786-0acc938e7c44&ref_=ci_mcx_mr_hp_atf_m which you should check out.
Or as always, if you’re in the market for something a little more supernatural, check out Hourglass https://www.amazon.com/HOURGLASS-Daniel-James-ebook/dp/B08JPPF9MW/ref=pd_aw_sbs_sccl_1/133-2402028-8450035?pd_rd_w=QUjuQ&pf_rd_p=bc45384a-cf15-479c-b874-e31c5245d34e&pf_rd_r=DDJ6J5YYATC4S3E6WT41&pd_rd_r=a6e3b616-51b0-45c7-adb2-0a3808727bff&pd_rd_wg=JJwyz&pd_rd_i=B08JPPF9MW&psc=1
Hey, a writer’s gotta plug, plug, plug.
Daniel James is an author of speculative (and sometimes dark and weird) fiction, from Liverpool, England. He is the recipient of two Kirkus Star reviews for his character-driven, action-packed urban fantasy novels Hourglass and The Ferryman’s Toll. Hourglass was also voted one of their Best 100 Indie novels of 2021.