“Kill Bill Volume 1” and “Kill Bill Volume 2” (2003/2004)
Quentin Tarantino’s two-part revenge film “Kill Bill” is easily the most obvious pick on this list, but as a whopping two-parter that spans about four and a half hours, it’s the modern day mother of revenge movies, and we’d be remiss if we omitted it (also, you’d hate us). In case you’ve lived under a rock, it’s about a bride, a former member of an assassination squad, who is betrayed and left for dead by her former leader and lover. The story of The Bride (Uma Thurman), often told in flashback, spans several continents and eras, including time in Japan, China and several parts of the U.S. What can we add to the “Kill Bill” films that hasn’t already been said? Well, the first one is more lean and mean, arguably the tighter film and more of a kung-fu movie more than anything else. The second one, much slower in pace, but with more inspired moments, is part samurai/kung-fu training film and part modern spaghetti western. It’s the more rambling of the two, but arguably has more soul. Perhaps the most significant element of the “Kill Bill” films is that they mark a pivotal point in Tarantino’s career. The movies began an era where he would recontextualize/recycle/pilfer old movie scores for his films, and mash up his favorite genres for his own ends (though “Jackie Brown” was arguably a slightly obvious mash-up of the ‘70s afro exploitation movie and ‘70s crime movie). And, perhaps most importantly, the films gave Tarantino the ego boost to write long, wandering narratives that need not adhere to studio notes or the accepted nature of three-act structures, for better or worse.
“Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949)
One of the more convoluted and wide-ranging revenge plots on this list — and a rare comic cinematic take on vengeance, Ealing comedy classic “Kind Hearts and Coronets” might not be obviously filed under the category ‘revenge movie,’ but you’d be forgetting its protagonists motivations if you defined it as anything but that. Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is a scion of the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family in Edwardian England. But his mother was disowned by the rest of her relatives for eloping with an Italian opera singer. She died in poverty, with the D’Ascoynes refusing to even let her be buried in the family vault, while Louis is shunned and refused employment by them. As a result, he sets out to take the title of Duke of Chalfont for himself by systematically offing the relatives who stand between them, every one of which is played, hilariously, by Alec Guinness. We shouldn’t have to sing the praises of Robert Hamer‘s film here; it’s an indisputable pitch-black comedy classic from the first scene to the last. But it’s worth recalling the vengeful backstory next time you watch it: it’s an incisive and smart look at class and snobbery in Britain (Edwardian or otherwise), even if it was probably wise, in terms of avoiding ugly stereotypes, to make Louis’ heritage Italian, rather than Jewish as it is in the book.
“The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976)
If you’ve been reading the tweets and interviews by James Mangold about his upcoming film, “The Wolverine,” and its influences, you might think the oft-namechecked ‘Josey Wales’ is a raw, bloody and brutal revenge movie (the type he says he’s aspiring to make). And while brutal events do take place and the body counts were probably pretty shocking for their time, ‘Josey Wales,’ is almost tame by today’s standards. But much more significantly, its tone and mood is far less dark and much more comedic than you’d expect. And the revenge therein is very circuitous. Clint Eastwood stars and directs his fifth feature-length film as the titular Josey Wales, a simple Missouri farmer whose life is ripped away from him when his wife and son are slaughtered by a group of rogue Red Leg soldiers post Civil War conclusion. Left with nothing, Wales joins another gang of pro-Confederate Bushwackers tracking the same men, and swears revenge. He cuts a swath through West Texas, killing anyone who gets in his way, including gunning down an army of Red Leg soldiers with a Gatling gun. Wales’ reputation soon grows and bounties mount up on his head. But on the path to revenge, and despite wanting to be a lone wolf, he befriends an old Indian and a young squaw, and Wales softens. He and his friends rescue some Kentucky wagon train pioneers and they eventually settle down together on a farm as a cooperative commune. Wales then calls a truce with local indian warriors and reveals a side of himself that prefers life to bloodshed. Revenge, however, has a way of finding him, even when he’s made his peace with the past. Well shot, directed and paced, this is easily one of Eastwood’s best directorial efforts and a Western up there with some of Sergio Leone’s best.
“Point Blank” (1967)
The Mel Gibson-starring, Brian Helgeland-directed “Payback” isn’t a terrible film, especially in its more recent Director’s Cut guise. But as a take on the same source material as John Boorman‘s stone-cold-classic “Point Blank” (like the later film, based on “The Hunter” by Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald E. Westlake), it doesn’t make much of an argument for the necessity of its existence. In the original, Lee Marvin stars as Walker (rather than the Parker of the novel — a character seen only a couple of months ago on screen in the form of Jason Statham), a criminal who’s double-crossed by his best friend Reese (John Vernon), who makes off with both Walker’s wife, and $93,000 that he’s owed. Things are complicated because Reese has used the money to pay his debts to a secret syndicate known as the Organization, who aren’t willing to give up such a hefty sum without a fight. Marvin, fresh off winning an Oscar for “Cat Ballou,” personally picked out the then-unknown Boorman for the film, and it’s one of the smartest decisions he ever made; Boorman brings a zippy, New Wave style to the film, a fractured timeline and dream-like feel proving endlessly influential, and genuinely groundbreaking for the genre. But it’s not just an empty stylistic showcase; its investigation into the grubby side of capitalism has real smarts, and in Marvin’s Walker, all kinds of wounded pathos. A genuine crime classic that’s barely aged a day, and a good argument that “The Hunter” should just be left alone as source material from here on out.
As far as “things to get revenge for,” it doesn’t get much more devastating than the 1972 Olympics massacre, wherein 11 members of the Israel Olympics team were held hostage and eventually murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group. In “Munich,” based on a supposedly true story, the Israeli government puts a team together to track down those they feel were responsible in the attack. Of course, revenge is never the kicky thrill one makes it out to be, and the moral implications of the murders weigh heavy on the squad, led by a young father played by Eric Bana. Spielberg often stages the killings as a series of potentially fatal flaws – a kind of labyrinthine game of Mouse Trap that could go horribly wrong (and often does) – and uses all of his remarkable tools as a filmmaker to make them as nail-bitingly suspenseful as they possibly could be. There’s a dense atmosphere of the claustrophobic, paranoid thrillers of the seventies, along with the piquant social commentary and conversation about getting lost in the mad fog of revenge. Easily one of the best revenge movies of all time, and one of director Steven Spielberg‘s most provocative works to date (weird that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner would first collaborate on something so vitally alive and then follow it up with the dusty, hermetically sealed “Lincoln,” which feels less like a movie than a historical diorama).