(Warning: minor spoilers)
Every once in a while I’m in the mood for a good revenge movie.
It’s a a tried-and-true genre, popular across all media, from films to books to comics (The Punisher, anyone?) Unfortunately, it can also be a fairly limiting concept which dictates certain storytelling tropes and cliches, leaving little wriggle room for creativity. That’s why for a revenge story to really capture my attention, it either needs a special element that transcends the basic plot, or has just the right blend of acting, characterization, and visuals that the whole becomes larger than the sum of its parts.
Here are a couple of movies that fulfill those requirements, one in each category:
This 2009 Hong Kong/French co-production is directed by Johnnie To, and stars Johnny Hallyday as a Francis, a retired hitman. When his daughter is severely wounded and her family murdered by 3 hit men, he decides to track down the killers and seek revenge. He enlists the help of 3 triad assassins and together they set out to track down the other 3 hitmen. However, as the story progresses, we learn that Francis has a an injury that affects his memory. He sometimes is unable to recognize his own partners in crime, let alone the killers they are tracking down. Another plot revelation about his partners further adds to the complexity of the narrative.
The film features a lot of the stylistic touches you’d expect from a Hong Kong crime flick, although here they are a bit more subdued, to match the film’s somber tone. This isn’t an all-out action shoot up, but rather a slow simmer. Themes of violence, loyalty, and memory are explored, and it’s the latter that sets this film apart from the many others in its genre.
After all, what does it even mean for a man to avenge a wrong if he doesn’t remember why he is doing it?
Titled L’immortel (The Immortal) in its original 2010 French release, this film is another “hitman goes on a campaign of vengeance” story. It’s directed by Richard Berry and stars the ubiquitous and likeable Jean Reno, who has made a career of playing tortured hitmen.
Reno plays Charlie Mattei, a former mob boss and hitman who has retired from the life, having sold his share of the various illegal businesses and rackets to his two childhood friends and partners. But his idyllic life of retirement with his wife and kids is torn apart when he’s ambushed by 8 gunmen and left for dead with 22 bullets riddling his body.
Yes, you guessed it. Miraculously, Charlie survives his horrendous injuries, and goes about the bloody business of retribution. All the familiar themes are present once more: family, loyalty, violence, revenge. Unlike the movie Vengeance, there’s no special plot twist that sets this movie apart from its peers. Rather, it tells its conventional story with a confident mix of great acting, interesting characters, interconnected subplots, and strong visuals.
Where Vengeance is fairly spare in its cast of characters, 22 Bullets is brimming with mob bosses, flamboyant henchmen, a stoic cop torn between her ethics and her own desire for revenge, and more. It unveils its hand with a slow, steady pace that carries your interest forward with the same momentum that carries the characters towards their inevitable clashes. Reno delivers a strong, nuanced performance, as you’d expect. The setting of Marseille provides some fantastic scenery, from tranquil beaches to grimy slums.
Simply put, it’s just a good story told boldly.