Top 10 Films About Vengeful Vigilantes

Revenge has played a key role in movies all around the world. Sometimes it is the victims who survive and turn the tables on their attackers, at other times it’s vigilantes who feel the “system” is letting them down and take the law into their own hands. That’s the focus of this top 10 list…
Get Carter, Film, Michael Caine

Michael Caine prepares for vengeance in Get Carter.

Following our look at the oppressed taking their revenge, we present the top 10 films about vengeful vigilantes. Here are ten characters who have seen wrongdoing through others or have witnessed a loved one or friend hurt or killed at the hands of a perpetrator who evaded lawful punishment. In other words – they got away with it.

Our protagonists here haven’t been targeted themselves but have become disillusioned with the so-called protections provided by the state after those they know (and care for) have become victims of harm. Their targets are “villains” who are carrying out crime without punishment. But this is about to stop…

See also: Top 10 Films About The Oppressed Taking Their Revenge

10. The Brave One (Jordan, 2007)

Vigilante: Erica Bain (Jodie Foster)
Victim: Boyfriend (murder)

Top 10 Films About Vengeful VigilantesOne of the few female vigilantes, Jodie Foster plays Erica Bain, a non-violent New York radio talk show host who is increasingly afraid for her own safety after the violent death of her boyfriend. Taking the law into her own hands, she buys a gun illegally and, after witnessing a murder, kills the perpetrator. This leads to further acts of retribution as she kills those she sees committing serious crime. The film is a little derivative, much of its plotting “borrowed” from other works, but is aided by the strong performances of Foster and Terrence Howard as a detective assigned to tracking down the vigilante.

9. The Equalizer (Fuqua, 2014)

Vigilante: Robert McCall (Denzel Washington)
Victim: Friend (physical abuse/violence)

Top 10 Films About Vengeful VigilantesA terrific feature film adaptation of the 1980s television show from talented Training Day director Antoine Fuqua, The Equalizer sees former black ops operative Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) decide to punish the Russian mobsters responsible for pimping and abusing a young prostitute. The film is one of the most entertaining tales of vigilantism thanks to its stylish depiction of McCall’s highly trained, clinical methods and the increasing stakes as his act of revenge sees an entire Russian mafia family seeking his head.

8. The Limey (Soderbergh, 1999)

Vigilante: Wilson (Terence Stamp)
Victim: Daughter (murder)

Top 10 Films About Vengeful VigilantesOne of Steven Soderbergh’s earlier films, The Limey is ostensibly a fancy-dressed b-movie with an air of arthouse respectability. Stamp’s rigid, plain-faced father arrives in Los Angeles from England on a mission to find the true circumstances surrounding his daughter’s fatal “accident”. Sensing foul play, much like Michael Caine’s vengeful vigilante in Get Carter, Wilson pieces together the events leading up to her death in order to find the true culprit. Soderbergh’s effective editing technique (juxtaposing sequences and pieces of dialogue inharmoniously with the on-screen action) provides effective sparks to an otherwise straightforward tale of revenge.

7. Death Wish (Winner, 1974)

Vigilante: Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson)
Victim: Wife (murdered) and daughter (sexually assaulted)

Top 10 Films About Vengeful VigilantesAfter witnessing his daughter’s mental breakdown following a sexual assault and the death of her mother during a violent home invasion, Charles Bronson’s once mild-mannered architect snaps. Previously opposed to any kind of violence, Kersey is sick of seeing crime on the street going unpunished while his catatonic daughter spends her days in an institution. Armed with a revolver, the proud family man wanders the night time streets seeking out thugs. Those who cross his path get a bullet for their criminality.

TIE 6. Columbiana (Megaton, 2011)

Vigilante: Cataleya Restrepo (Zoe Saldana)
Victim: Mother and father (murdered)

Top 10 Films About Vengeful VigilantesA lesson all mob bosses need to learn: if you’re going to kill a mother, father or both, make sure their kids don’t know who did it because they might come seeking revenge. It’s even worse when the child in question grows up to become a clinical assassin, expertly trained at the covert kill and a specialist in just about every weapon out there. That’s what happens to Don Luis Sandoval (Beto Benites) who becomes the prey of Cataleya Restrepo (Zoe Saldana) who seeks vengeance for the murder of her mother and father who Don Luis killed when she was a child.

TIE 6. Man On Fire (Scott, 2004)

Vigilante: John Creasy (Denzel Washington)
Victim: Client/friend (abducted)

Top 10 Films About Vengeful VigilantesAfter John Creasy (Denzel Washington) fails to prevent the kidnapping of a rich family’s young daughter in Mexico City, he sets out to kill everyone responsible for the abduction. Tony Scott’s characteristic visuals enliven a city enduring a heated battle between an all-powerful criminal underworld and the ill-prepared, unmotivated and potentially corrupt authorities. The purgative delights of bloody retribution (and some highly inventive kills), a devastatingly impactful finale, and an excellent Washington as the washed-up ex-Marine-turned-bodyguard, make Man on Fire one of the most satisfying tales of revenge in cinema.

5. Harry Brown (Barber, 2009)

Vigilante: Harry Brown (Michael Caine)
Victim: Friend (murder)

Top 10 Films About Vengeful VigilantesAn interesting revenge movie largely because the vigilante is far from his prime, Harry Brown pits old against young, a motif that pervades through this story of retribution. Michael Caine – an actor well known for enacting vengeance (see Get Carter) – seeks revenge once again but in a very different mould than before. Here the vigilante must endure the frailties of old age to battle the youths responsible for crime in the local area. With the authorities unable to stop the anti-social behaviour and crime seemingly out of control (after his best friend is murdered and he himself is held at knife point), Brown buys a handgun from a local drug dealer. His bloody vigilantism begins immediately as he kills the drug dealer with the gun he buys from him after witnessing sexual abuse on a young girl. Barber’s film is elevated thanks to its contemporary social comment in the age of the ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order), one of Michael Caine’s best performances in years, and a terrifically suspenseful final third.

4. Prisoners (Villeneuve, 2013)

Vigilante: Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman)
Victim: Daughter (kidnapped)

Top 10 Films About Vengeful VigilantesKeller Dover (played by Hugh Jackman) is a hard-working family man from a middle class neighbourhood. When his young daughter disappears after playing outside with a friend, the police arrest but release their prime suspect because of lack of evidence. When Dover, angry and fearful that his child has come to harm, sees the suspect (Paul Dano) outside the police station, he attacks him. The suspect whispers to Dover that “they didn’t cry until I left them”, seemingly incriminating himself. While the police investigation continues, Dover holds the suspect hostage. He violently tortures him for information, each bone-breaking blow a cathartic explosion of energy as the amount of days his child is missing mount up. Villeneuve’s brilliant thriller is an exciting combination of powerful performance, sublime pacing and perfect plot twists.

3. Dead Man’s Shoes (Meadows, 2004)

Vigilante: Richard (Paddy Considine)
Victim: Brother (physical and emotional abuse)

Top 10 Films About Vengeful VigilantesIn Shane Meadows’ sparse revenge movie, a psychologically scarred British paratrooper (Paddy Considine) returns to his hometown and learns that his mentally disabled brother has been violently bullied by a local gang. The bullying has become extreme, involving torture and sexual abuse. The army veteran confides in his brother – a sibling he dearly loves despite his mental illness putting years of strain on the family – that he will hunt down the perpetrators and enact vengeance. Dead Man’s Shoes has plenty of emotional depth without any baggage as Meadows streamlines his narrative into a dot-joining journey underpinned by violent retribution and cathartic revenge. Considine’s Richard evokes memories of Michael Caine’s Jack Carter, each a sort of unstoppable force of nature.

2. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)

Vigilante: Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)
Victim: Friend (abuse)

Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese,Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) has a lot of issues. He can’t quite grasp the etiquette of dating (taking an attractive lady to a porn theatre), can’t sleep (so works the night shift for a New York City taxi company), and can’t get child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) out of his head. It’s not because he has an unhealthy attraction to the teenage girl but because of her degrading lifestyle and abusive pimp (Harvey Keitel). After failing in his attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate at a local rally he turns his increasing fetish for violence on Iris’ prostitution ring, killing its leader and his associates. Martin Scorsese’s film remains one of the director’s most unsettling films; a hellish character study in a post-Vietnam War America. De Niro is simply outstanding.

1. Get Carter (Hodges, 1971)

Vigilante: Jack Carter (Michael Caine)
Victim: Brother (murdered)

Top 10 Films About Vengeful VigilantesMichael Caine plays a tough, no nonsense London gangster who heads “up north” to attend his brother’s funeral only to find his death might not have been an accident. Carter investigates and comes face-to-face with the city’s hardened organised crime leaders who may have been responsible. With revenge on his mind, he seeks out the perpetrators one-by-one. Director Mike Hodges’ gritty styling gives both Carter’s vengeful journey and the urban locale a raw authenticity that makes this vigilante’s plight even more intense and palpable.

Written and Compiled by Dan Stephens

Over to you: which vengeful vigilante gets your vote? Is there a great revenge movie I haven’t mentioned?

See also: Top 10 Films About The Oppressed Taking Their Revenge

Dan Stephens
About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Rory Reply

    Great choice to include Columbiana. A stylish film where you will Zoe Saldana to use her skills to get her revenge. Don’t think you can beat Get Carter (the original, of course). Dead Man’s Shoes and Prisoners also feature some great vigilantism. In fact, there’s 11 top notch films right here. The Equalizer was far better than I thought it would be.

    • Dan Reply

      Columbiana was a late but necessary addition. 🙂

      • Rory Reply

        The film features Cliff Curtis, surely the actor who has played the most amount of ethnicities of anyone in Hollywood. Here the New Zealander plays Saldana’s Columbian uncle.

        • Dan Reply

          …and he was the Iraqi rebel in Three Kings.

          I think Get Carter was the easy choice for number one but it was a good starting point for the rest of the list. Dead Man’s Shoes was another early contender for the top spots.

  2. Dan Grant Reply

    Awesome!! Perfect companion piece to the other one. I will comment more on it when I get home later but this is an amazing piece of work Dan.

  3. Mark Fraser Reply

    Another solid list Dan, although I must say I never considered Travis Bickle a vigilante; rather I just saw him as a straight out kook looking to make some kind of mark for himself.

    Some others which came to mind could in fact be in a list of their own: Lawmen Who Become Vengeful Vigilantes.

    It would include:

    The Deadly Trackers – a grotty western directed by Barry Shear circa 1973 in which a sheriff (Richard Harris) tracks down a bank robber (Rod Taylor) and his gang after they kill his family.

    Mad Max – George Miller’s 1979 original, in which Max (Mad Mel) tracks down and kills members of the bikie gang who kill his wife and kiddie.

    Parole De Flic (Cop’s Honour) – a quite silly 1986 part remake of Magnum Force by Jose Pinheiro in which a retired cop (Alain Delon) hunts down the men responsible for his daughter’s death.

    Aside from that, another possible contender could arguably be Kevin Spacey’s “John Doe” in Se7en, in which the killer – aside from cementing his place in Colin Wilson books – seems genuine regarding his contempt for society’s self indulgent ills.

    Then there’s the western Nevada Smith with Steve McQueen, who avenges the death of his parents.

    Liked Get Carter as number one; I probably would have had Harry Brown a little higher up as well …..

    • Dan Reply

      Thanks Mark. I suppose I’d say Travis Bickle’s vigilantism is the clearest-minded thing the “kook” does during the film as he definitely feels Iris is being abused by her controlling pimp. You could easily argue his bloody vengeance was a trigger-happy after-thought following his failed assassination attempt but I’ll pursue the line that he had some sanity in him!

  4. Girge Reply

    Get Carter is brilliant. The remake is good too.

    • Dan Reply

      Can’t agree regarding the pointless remake but glad you’re a fan of the original.

  5. Dan Grant Reply

    I like this piece. I’ve seen almost all of these and the one I haven’t is something I need to track down. I wonder, did you ever consider adding the original Taken to the list?

    • Dan Reply

      Good one Dan. Taken hadn’t cropped up during writing this one but would be a perfect addition. I guess the thought of the film was somewhat muted by the terrible third one (which was the last of the franchise I saw).

  6. Tully Reply

    Another good list of revenge movies. My personal favourite of this selection is Prisoners, an exceptional film where vengeance plays only a small part in a terrifically twisty thriller. Cab’t argue with your selection or your number one.

    • Dan Reply

      Prisoners was one of my favourite films of 2013. Denis Villeneuve is building quite the portfolio of work.

  7. Roger That Reply

    Nice list. I did think of Taken which others have mentioned but I also immediately thought of Dead Man’s Shoes so great to see it here.

    • Dan Reply

      Dead Man’s Shoes has to be one of my favourite films from director Shane Meadows. Considine is a good actor anyway but he works so well with Meadows.

  8. Adrian Toms Reply

    Cool selection. Just realised I love these types of movies. I still need to see Dead Man’s Shoes, The Limey and Harry Brown.

    • Dan Reply

      There’s a definite allure to villains getting their comeuppance. Make sure you check out those three films – all excellent.

  9. Callum Reply

    Great list Dan. Dead Man’s Shoes and Prisoners are brilliant movies. In terms of most memorable, I don’t think you can beat Taxi Driver. I’m guessing it would leave an even nastier taste in the mouth had they not desaturated the colouring to make the blood look less red. I also liked The Equalizer and The Brave One was pretty cool.

    • Callum Reply

      My top 5:

      5. The Equalizer
      4. Man on Fire
      3. Get Carter
      2. Dead Man’s Shoes
      1. Taxi Driver

      • Callum Reply

        Watched Taxi Driver again last night. It gets better and better!

  10. Dan Grant Reply

    Ok, I’m going to find Dead Man’s Shoes….lots of love for it here. Thanks for the recommendation.

  11. ruth maramis Reply

    Revenge is certainly a popular topic in Hollywood, esp when it’s just one man against many. Really need to see The Limey and Harry Brown as I love both lead actors. Speaking of vengeful vigilante, well I just re-watched this Austrian Western The Dark Valley starring my current crush Sam Riley. Brutal vengeance indeed!

  12. Fred The Red Reply

    Nice list. I quite enjoyed Death Sentence but not sure it would knock out any of the 10 you’ve chosen.

  13. Mark Reply

    Nice list.
    Have you seen Blue Ruin? It’s an interesting addition to the revenge genre because the protagonist is so incompetent. It gives you the thrill of a revenge story while making you feel his very real pain.

  14. Neal Damiano Reply

    Fantastic list Dan,

    The only film I would have to include is the grind house classic Ms. 45 by the master director Abel Ferrara. Most of his films fall under the radar. Ms. 45 is brutal in delivery and the lead Miss Zoe goes beyond the edge, so far, there’s no return.

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