Revenge, or retaliation is as old an impulse as the reptile brain. “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge fantasy, opened on Christmas, following the spring release of “The Avengers.” The theme of revenge, it seems, and the business of avenging was strong in this year passed. Lately, however, it seems as if Tarantino (“Kill Bill,” “Inglorious Basterds”) has taken proprietorship of the whole revenge fantasy film genre. But he is not alone, of course. “The Dark Knight Rising” is in its entirety from start to finish a paean to revenge, from Bane’s revenge against The Bat to The Bat’s revenge against Bane.
Quentin may be on to something. Revenge, when done well, is as immensely satisfying a cinematic experience as it is a dark psychological pleasure that arose in dark antiquity. The feeling of satisfaction from a revenge fantasy movie is not entirely unlike how at the end of TV’s “Law and Order” the bad guys – generally – get their comeuppance. The viewer feels as if all is well and good in the world (even though, of course, it often is not) after a hard day of work in a universe where fortune appears to favor the most aggressive and ethically neutral among us. And who among us wouldn’t prefer to watch Spielberg’s “Munich” than, say, Angelina Jolie’s massive downer of a film, “A Mighty Heart”? Would you rather pay admission to “A Mighty Heart” over “Munich”?
In the spirit of revenge, in all its dark glory, here are my five favorite films from that genre:
5. “Leon: The Professional” (1994)
Icy-precise hitman Leon Montana led a pretty nihilistic, efficient life until he took the contract of little Mathilda. Mathilde, played by Natalie Portman, seeks the avenging of the death of her family by the sleazy-precise corrupt DEA agent Stansfield in an apartment complex. The death of her innocent four year old brother and the powerlessness of a twelve year old girl against such forces of governmental corruption strike a universal chord. And the redemption of Leon, one of the most loveable cold-blooded killers of all time, makes this film truly a superlative example of revenge fantasy. Rest in pieces, brother.
4. “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)
“Revenge,” hisses Khan Noonien Singh, “is a dish best served cold.” This, Khan tells us, is an old Klingon proverb, but many actual civilizations have lived by that same idea. Fifteen years earlier, Captain James Kirk stranded Khan in the remains of the USS Botany Bay to live out the rest of his days in the cold embrace of outer freaking space. How cool is that? Sheer geekiness notwithstanding, Star Trek II is an instance of a sequel outdoing the original. The slowly played out space cat and mouse game is masterful, a cosmic dance. “The Wrath of Khan” is timeless, transcending the limited appeal of mere science fiction.
3. “The Unforgiven” (1960)
Before Clint Eastwood made an ass of himself chatting with an empty chair in public, he was one of the greatest American badasses of all time. “The Unforgiven,” widely seen at the time as “the last Western” is also about Redemption, one of the thematic pillars of any great revenge story. There is nothing conventionally good about any of the characters, outlaws all. Eastwood, as aging outlaw William Munny, is no saint – and neither are his gunfighter sidekicks or the prostitutes who post a $1,000 bounty on the heads of the animals that disfigured one of their own. And yet our primal, reptile brains cannot help but anticipate with dark joy the bloody comeuppance sure to come. Delicious.
2. “Gladiator” (2000)
“Gladiator,” on its surface, is formulaic. The noble Maximus is wronged by Power. He struggles, against all odds, and gets his revenge. And the film won Best Picture. Still, this is not Rocky II. The execution is so brilliant, the story so perfect, the acting so convincing, that Gladiator of the only movies that I have ever seen where the audience at the theater broke into applause several times during the film as well as at the end. Gladiator can only be properly construed as cathartic. We cheer at the sanguinary death of the whiny “Emperor” Commodus because he didn’t deserve the throne; we cheer at the death of the whiny “Emperor” Commodus every time power, unearned, holds its boots to our collective necks. Rest in peace, Maximus; semper fi.
1. “The Godfather” (1974)
Not only is “The Godfather” one of the greatest films in the history of cinema, it is the greatest revenge fantasy in the history of cinema. Vito Corleone, granted, is not as noble as the Roman soldier Maximus, but he, after his own fashion, is not without an ancient moral code guiding his behavior.
Three of the film’s most effective scenes involve intricate depictions of the psychology of revenge in an almost classic tragic form. In the first, Vito Corleone movingly forgoes revenge for the death of Sonny, withdrawing his objections to the Tattaglia’s in the meeting with the Five Families for the sake of peace. In the second hugely effective rendering of the psychology of revenge, Michael Corleone, the next generation of Don, bides his time and brutally exacts his revenge, consolidating his power. And in the final, and most effective scene involving the psychology of revenge, Michael – the son of his father — blatantly lies to his wife, Kay, about the bloody-tragic actions he set in motion.
Retaliation, or revenge, is as old as the reptile brain, but it is that most civilized of human art –motion pictures – that has fully expressed that impulse in all its dark, glorious beauty.