A kung-fu flick with fancy wire work is still a kung-fu flick and a revenge flick with CGI is still a revenger . Some may confuse “Wolverine” with a superhero film, but make no mistake, it’s a revenger of the best kind: a B-level plot with A-level action — all meat and potatoes without a vegetable anywhere in sight.
This is one of my favorite genres, especially when it comes to the smaller, lesser known – or better yet – less respected members of this family. Sure, there’s “Star Trek II,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “The Sting,” “Man on Fire,” and both “Kill Bill” films – love ’em all, and so do you, but here are five you may have missed that are even more satisfying than their better known cousins.
1. Death Wish II (1982) – Michael Winner’s first “Death Wish” (1974) is often mistaken as a revenge film when it’s really a vigilante film. For we purists that distinction matters. The original may show up on all kinds of Top 10 Revenge Film lists but at no time does Bronson’s Paul Kersey look for the thugs who murdered his wife and raped his daughter. What he does do is take it to the streets as an avenging angel to overcome his own sense of helplessness. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great because punks get blown away and liberal critics howl, but a revenger it is not.
Winner’s follow-up, however, is an epic of revenge, one of the most exploitive, manipulative and satisfying movies ever made. Bronson was 60 at the time and at the height of human achievement in pure badassery. Watching The Mighty One, dressed in black from top to bottom, stalk the seedy streets of Los Angeles hunting the punks who raped and murdered his daughter as Jimmy Page’s howling score skews the tone into something surreal is as good as it gets.
The cherry on top? Well, that would be the subtextual viewing pleasure of knowing how much critics hate it.
2. Act of Violence (1948) – In “The Searchers,” John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards describes his own determination with this famous quote:
Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.
Post-war Los Angeles — when California was still known as “Sunny California,” — and war hero Van Heflin’s done quite well for himself: Nice home, thriving business, cute little son, and best of all, his wife looks exactly like Janet Leigh. Unfortunately, there’s this…
Scrape … scrape … scrape … scrape…
That sound has relentlessly haunted Heflin over an ocean and across America, and now it’s knocking on the front door in the form of Robert Ryan who will have his revenge on Heflin … just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.
Fred Zinneman directs this splendidly shot, tightly plotted piece of noir that’s deserving of a revival and finally available on DVD. I won’t spoil a drop of story, but the performances are as good as it gets, especially Oscar-winner Mary Astor in a late-career supporting role, and the wrap-up is hugely satisfying on every level. Well worth a Netflix, to say the least.
3. Coffy (1973) – A masterpiece of blaxploitation thanks to Pam Grier’s ridiculously sexy and determined presence as a nurse out to get The Man who fed her sister contaminated heroin. Every scene reaches for “cool” and delivers. Sure, the acting’s stiff and the action’s over-rehearsed, but with dialogue like this…
Vitroni: Crawl, ni**er!
Coffy: [pulls gun] You want me to crawl, white motherf**ker?
Vitroni: What’re you doing? Put that down.
Coffy: You want to spit on me and make me crawl? I’m gonna piss on your grave tomorrow.
… if you catch me on the right day I’ll tell you “Coffy” is the greatest movie ever made. There’s just something distinctive and sublime about a genre film that aims for a target and hits the bullseye.
4. Chato’s Land (1972) – Two years before kicking off the “Death Wish” franchise, director Michael Winner and Charles Bronson teamed up for the first time to give the revenge genre a test-drive with this satisfying and violent Western about a half-breed Apache (Bronson) hunted by a posse after he kills a sheriff in self-defense.
You don’t need me to tell you that some tables find themselves turned and thanks to a splendid supporting cast consisting of Jack Palance, James Whitmore, Ralph Waite, Richard Jordan and Victor French, there is all kinds of pleasure to be had in that table turn as the posse degenerates into lawlessness and in-fighting.
Imposing over every frame is the stoic and fearsome Bronson whose transformation from a quiet, peaceable man wanting to get home to his family, into a relentless revenging angel with a righteous cause is something few actors could pull off believably.
Acting’s in the eyes, not the affectations … and Bronson made you believe.
5. Hannie Caulder (1971) – Raquel Welch starred in three outstanding Westerns between 1968 and 1971 — this, “Bandolero!” (1968) and “100 Rifles” (1969). Beyond her stunning physical appearance, Welch is progressively better in each of them and with “Hannie Caulder” impressively carries the film mostly on her own. There to help her is Robert Culp (one of my favorite unheralded actors in one of his best film roles) as a slightly offbeat bounty hunter, but Raquel adds some real brawn to her beauty as a woman determined to learn the way of the gun in order to have her revenge on the three men who raped her and killed her husband.
Burt Kennedy directs and adapted the screenplay, so it’s sure to be a lean, satisfying 85 minutes. Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, Jack Elam and Christopher Lee fill out an excellent supporting cast and a surprisingly (for director Kennedy, anyway) odd sense of humor pervades everything.
An unconventional film, but more than worthy.