What is it about the revenge flick? There have been tonnes of them made, but there hasn’t really been a definitive one produced to date. The trailer for Michael Caine’s latest effort (does the man ever sleep?) Harry Brown has appeared on-line and looks to be released fairly shortly. It’s interesting to see Caine – at his present age – playing a riff on his classic Get Carter role as he plays an ex-army man who tries to avenge the death of his best friend. I’d run out of fingers listing movies with that plot, but I can’t really think of a really, really, really good one. What is it about rip-roaring rampages of revenge that we can’t get behind? And, if we are so disturbed by them, how come they keep getting made?
To be clear, I’m talking particularly of the gritty urban vigilante subgenre, so revenge epics like For a Few Dollars More or Kill Bill don’t really count. Even excluding those there are a whole rake of those movies that come to mind, hidden away at the periphery of pop culture consciousness, almost as though we were ashamed that we make these kinds of films.
It’s not as though the films don’t attract big stars. Kevin Bacon attempted a similar effort a few years back with Death Sentence which saw him taking some youngsters to task for the death of his son. Neil Jordan and Jodie Foster teamed up for The Brave One where a woman takes to the streets to fight the scum that murdered her fiancé. And Michael Caine is hardly a nobody himself, having won an Oscar several years ago and remaining one of Britain’s biggest exports. It isn’t as though these films are being edited together in a dungeon somewhere by a bunch of music video directors and torture porn enthusiasts.
Before I get carried away in defense of these films, I will concede that some (or most) are exploitive. But many great films (and a lot more below average films) are exploitive. The schlock of The Night of the Living Dead is heralded as a landmark in cinema commentating on everything from the breakdown of the nuclear family to the threat of Communism. Dead Man Walking is inherently exploitive (albeit less exploitive than most death-row films), but it is also one of the most affecting pieces of cinema ever made. In a more recent (and therefore more divisive) example, Inglourious Basterds is exploition down to a tee, but is also one of the best films of the year (in my opinion). So exploitive shouldn’t be used as a synonom for ‘crap’.
That said, a great many of these films are crap. I won’t pretend otherwise. They are poorly-made pieces of film. But a lot of horror films or comedies are poorly made and they don’t lead to their particular genres being dismissed so easily.
Maybe we like to pretend that these films don’t interest us because they are juvenile. They are petty revenge fantasies that make us feel better and make us feel more comfortable. There’s no real depth – revenge isn’t a particularly complex emotion. The notion of a vigilante is childish and something that we shouldn’t encourage. If we indulged these whims society would crumble. Films like this don’t deserve attention because they play to a fantasy that never should be indulged with attention.
This argument assumes that just because a whim is something we should be ashamed of, it should be ignored or it doesn’t merit further attention. The argument that these films are simply crde fantasies is also a bit of a glib answer. Perhaps the people making such observations ought to pay closer attention to them. I disagree with Armond White as often as I agree with him (and even less so when it comes to individual movies rather than criticism), but he has tried to mount a valiant defense on the part of The Brave One:
Nowadays, reviewers almost never draw continuity between new films and movie history—except to get it wrong, as in the idiotic reviews that belittled Neil Jordan’s sensitive, imaginative The Brave One (a movie that brilliantly contrasts vengeful guilt to 9/11 aftershock) as merely a rip-off of the 1970s exploitation feature Death Wish.
As White points out, we all feel the urge to revenge ourselves. We all feel hurt and pain and we all feel the urge to somehow balance the scales by taking matters into our hands. Most of the time these urges are petty and poorly-considered, something we rightly feel ashamed about with the passage of time and the dawning of perspective. Perhaps the movies serve as therapy, a collectiveventing of our subconscious on the matter – indulging our primal thirsts.
Maybe that’s why we dislike these sorts of films so much. Maybe we see ourselves reflected back in a crude manner. Who wouldn’t feel the rage that Charles Bronson feels in Death Wish? We like to pretend that we haven’t thought such thoughts, but we have. And not even on an individual level. How many social and political movements have started on a feeling of unease withn society? It’s very common for people to speak out against the British government’s ASBOS policy, but the momentum must have come from somewhere. The same with US foreign policy after 9/11. Rather than engage the feelings of insecurity and vulnerability in our society that motivate (or at least have been used to facilitate) these political movements, we simply refuse to have the discussion.
Perhaps that is why we don’t talk about all these movies that come out based around that revenge fantasy or we casually dismiss them as nothing more than cheap thrills, despite the possibly deep social commentary that they may contain. That’s why we can cheer for the movies that make these vigilantes the badguys – like Magnum Force, in which this vigilante stuff is too much even for no-nonsense cop Dirty Harry – or where the vigilante is cloaked in the dress of fantasy – like oh-so-many superhero films.
Maybe this is the case. Or maybe I’m reading too much into stuff. Maybe there hasn’t been attention paid to this steadily-growing and clearly-popular-with-someone subgenre because it hasn’t produced any top-quality films. Maybe that is a result of the fact that few studios will put the effort in to a genre that is ignored, preparing to half-bake the idea. Maybe there really is only one story here and it has simply been told again and again and again until it stopped being interesting.