What's that old Klingon proverb again? I believe it's "Revenge is a dish best served cold." The proverb is meant as an admonishment to revenge seekers to use intellect and rationality and not passion and emotion in seeking vengeance. It's also not a Klingon proverb (it dates back several hundred years). When it comes to cinematic vigilantes, revenge is usually best served with blood-drenched, bone-crunching fury. The subject of today's Cinematical Seven, vigilantes on/in film, has been written to coincide with the release of Michael Caine's turn as a retiree-turned-cold-blooded vigilante Harry Brown (out on DVD/Bu-Ray today for your viewing pleasure).

First, we'll start with one bright-line rule: masked avengers, costumed superheroes won't appear anywhere in this Cinematical Seven. So no Batman, no V (as in V for Vendetta), no Kick-Ass, or any other vigilante who wears a cape and cowl (or a mask and costume) will appear on this list. By refusing to hide their faces behind a mask, non-costumed vigilantes are closer to the real world and, consequently, farther away from the fantasy world of masked crime-fighters like Batman or his many imitators.

We also won't count the expansive cops-turned-vigilantes sub-genre that kicked off the 1970s with Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry. Cops in this sub-genre willfully break the law, usually tossed away with a glancing, derogatory mention of "legal technicalities," supposedly in the service of a higher, natural law. They, of course, get to decide (moral) right and wrong and act accordingly to the detriment of evildoers in their path, but again, it's the righteous (self-righteous?) non-law enforcement vigilante who I find offers the most to think and write about.

[Insert the usual "Spoiler Alert" before the jump.]
1. Straw Dogs (1971). Sam Peckinpah followed The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), both revisionist Westerns, with Straw Dogs, a revenge-thriller that focuses on David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), a milquetoast college professor who retreats to a rural British farm with his English wife, Amy (Susan George), to escape a turbulent America. Violence follows Sumner to England. His timidity emboldens several British working types who, in Straw Dogs most controversial scene, rape Amy in one of the most disturbing scenes put on film (once seen, never forgotten). Women and rape tended to be motivating factors for men-in-rampage mode films of the era. Sumner responds with murderous rage. Peckinpah even went as far as calling Sumner the real villain for sublimating his initial violent impulses (I disagree).

2. Death Wish(1974). Director Michael Winner tapped in the 70's zeitgeist three years later with Death Wish, a New York City-set vigilante tale centered on Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson). After thugs kill his wife and rape his daughter (she retreats into a catatonic state), Kersey grabs a gun and begins hunting not just the men responsible for his wife's death and daughter's rape, but other hardcore criminals worthy of swift, brutal execution at the end of Kersey's gun. Sordid, reactionary, and exploitative, Death Wish spawned multiple sequels and, unsurprisingly, imitators eager to capitalize on Death Wish's box-office success.

3. Taxi Driver (1976). A collaboration between Paul Schrader (Mishima, Raging Bull) director Martin Scorsese (ShutterIsland, The Departed, Goodfellas) and actor Robert DeNiro, Taxi Driver shares the city-as-urban-motif depicted two years earlier in Death Wish, but makes its loner character, Travis Bickle (DeNiro), an ex-Vietnam vet, and insomniac, a disturbed, borderline psychotic. There's no specific trigger for Bickle's behavior, at least none we see. He's already mentally disturbed when we overhear his voiceover narration. Taxi Driver ends in a bloodbath that's meant to be cathartic for Bickle, if not for the audience. The final, irony-drenched scene reflects Schrader and Scorsese's attempt, successful in my opinion, at social and political commentary (i.e., not all media-celebrated heroes are, in fact, heroes).

4. In the Bedroom (2001). One line, "I couldn't wait," in Todd Field's revenge-drama, In the Bedroom, has stayed with me since for almost a decade. On the surface, Todd Field's adaptation of Andre Dubus' short story, In the Bedroom, might seem like an unusual choice for this list, especially given the relatively low body count, but it's also the most serious exploration of loss, grief, and the overwhelming desire for revenge when the justice system, as usual for the vigilante sub-genre, fails In the Bedroom's central, middle-aged couple, Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek). When their son's murderer goes free on one of those aforementioned "legal technicalities," they realize they can't move forward with their lives until the killer has been brought to justice, theirs if not the law's.

5. Kill Bill(2003/2004). On a lighter, if no less bloody (actually much more bloody) take on the vigilante sub-genre, Kill Bill celebrates Quentin Tarantino's inexhaustible love for all things genre-related and his concomitant desire to reference high- and low-art in his films, but there's little doubt that Tarantino's central character, Beatrice Kiddo a.k.a. the Bride (Uma Thurman), a one-time assassin left for dead by her former lover/boss and a hit squad on her wedding day, and her city and country-spanning hunt for revenge, makes for compelling viewing. And given the typically male-centered focus of the vigilante sub-genre, the Bride's addition is a welcome one.

6. Oldboy(2003). The second entry in Chan-Wook Park's (Thirst, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) deliriously bloody and gory "revenge trilogy," Oldboy follows a middle-aged man, Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi), inexplicably released after 15 years of being imprisoned by person or persons unknown and his unrelentingly violent search for their identities. If there's a case to be made for the "ignorance is bliss" adage, Oldboy makes it. Oldboy features one of the most memorable fight scenes in the last decade-and-a-half, a loose, chaotic melee in a hallway (cue side-scrolling camera), Oldboy repays multiple viewings, less for the puzzle plot and an implausible, if no less devastating, denouement than for the wonderfully excessive journey Park takes us on.

7. Lady Vengeance (2005). Chan-Wook Park's third entry in his "revenge thriller," Lady Vengeance is more contemplative, less action-oriented, but just as stylish visually as Oldboy. Lady Vengeance focuses on Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee). a wronged woman's elaborate, meticulous plan for revenge against the man who forced her to confess to a crime she didn't commit. The penultimate scene is as chilling and disturbing as anything in Park's work as a filmmaker. Revenge, at least in this case, is definitely a dish (or rather a cake) best served cold, but Park, far more generous here than in Oldboy, gives Geum-ja Lee a moment of hope, however transient and transitory, as Lady Vengeance comes to a close.

Since we've reached the seven-entry mark, I'll add a few additional mentions: semi-honorable (or is dishonorable?) mention to Man on Fire and Taken and a definite dishonorable mention to The Brave One, Neil Jordan's Death Wish update starring Jodie Foster as a revenge-minded vigilante and Terence Howard as the semi-sympathetic cop. And for bonus points, the same retrograde, stereotypical take on minorities and the poor that made Death Wish morally and ethically questionable thirty-six years ago.

So do you agree or disagree with this Cinematical Seven? If you disagree, what vigilante-themed films would make your top seven? Sound off in the comments with your thoughts.
categories Cinematical