Revenge is a dish best served cold. For these characters – men and women who have suffered at the hands of a bully, a tormentor, an unrelenting enemy – revenge is about self-preservation and re-establishing self-worth.
What is the best revenge movie? There are literally hundreds of films inspired by the idea of vengeance. Many of them see the main character suffer a loss of some kind; maybe it’s the death of a child or a spouse (or a dog in the case of John Wick) and they hunt down those responsible for the crime. The films listed here are a very specific ten. These involve characters who were harmed or bullied by others. They were the oppressed and decided to do something about it. These revenge movies are about characters regaining a sense of self-worth through cathartic retribution.
See also: Top 10 Films About Vengeful Vigilantes
Here’s the top 10 films about the tormented turning the tables on their tormentors. This list contains spoilers.
10. First Blood (Kotcheff, 1982)
John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) came to town to find the last remaining member of his unit from Vietnam. He learns that he died of cancer, ostensibly from agent Orange. He wanders aimlessly through a small town and is picked up by a local sheriff who tells him to get something to eat in a diner about 30 miles up the highway. Rambo is then arrested for vagrancy and he is mistreated and beaten while at the hands of the local sheriff’s department. Upon escaping, the small town police department, who have no idea that he is a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, embark on a road to hell. Rambo takes his revenge on them leading them into the mountains where he is much more at home. After spending three years in Vietnam, Rambo is ready to give them a taste of their own medicine. Legs are broken, deputies are shot by one another, a pole of spikes in lodged into someone’s legs and then at the end of the film, Sheriff Teasle, played by Brian Dennehy, is up against Rambo one on one. Rambo plays with him, torments him and nearly kills him. It’s a somewhat cautionary tale about war and its aftermath.
9. An Innocent Man (Yates, 1989)
This was an overlooked film from the late 80s. But it’s a terrific revenge film. Tom Selleck plays an airline mechanic and husband named Jimmie Rainwood. Two crooked cops, who steal cocaine from their own drug busts and then sell it back on the street, go to Jimmie’s house and mistake him for someone with a gun. Jimmie has a hairdryer in his hand after he came out of the shower. The two cops shoot him and then frame him and send him to a maximum security prison where he is beaten and subjugated and almost raped. He is befriended by Virgil Caine, played by F. Murray Abraham. He teaches a reluctant Jimmie how to fight and how to defend himself with a litany of weapons. Jimmie transforms from a shy and repressed innocent into a hardened and angry man who wants revenge on those who set him up. And when he gets out, he does get that revenge. The two cops can’t just leave him alone, they continue to antagonize him once he gets home. They of course have no idea what Jimmie is capable of now. He not only gets revenge in a physical way, but he manages to get Internal Affairs on his side and his two oppressors, are sent to the same prison as Jimmie was in.
8. Man On Fire (Scott, 2004)
Jon Creasy, as played by Denzel Washington, is a scary man. Sure, he is typically the scarred and damaged former CIA agent and all the typical stuff that these characters usually are. He drinks too much, he’s suicidal and he just generally hates life. He has seen too much, done too much and his mind is ready to pop. He is offered a job protecting a Mexican family. As told to him by his only true friend, played by Christopher Walken, this is easy money. Take a young girl to school and make sure the house is secure. Creasy reluctantly takes the job and after much resistance, he finds a will to live. The young girl, named Pita, played beautifully by perhaps the best child actor of all time, Dakota Fanning, brings Creasy back from the dead. She makes him smile, she helps him stop drinking and she even names her teddy bear after him. When she is kidnapped by Mexican thugs looking for a ransom, they almost kill Creasy in the process. He is shot numerous times and left for dead on the street. When he recovers and is told that Pita was killed, he extracts brutal revenge on the kidnappers. “I’m going to do what I do best. I’m going to kill em. Anyone that was involved, anyone who profited from it. Anyone that opens their eyes to me.” What ensues is a thrilling finale where fingers are cut off, homemade bombs are inserted into an anus and other forms of brutal revenge. Man on Fire is one of the best films of the 2000s.
7. Straw Dogs (Peckinpah, 1971)
Sam Peckinpah made some very violent and controversial films. This might be his best. This was originally banned in the UK upon release. Dustin Hoffman plays David Sumner. He moves to the countryside to get away from the violence of the big city. He and his wife, played by Susan George, have a bit of a troubled marriage. This is one of the more controversial films because of a controversial rape sequence. You could never get away with something like this today and it was something that caused a lot of critics to tear the film apart in 1971. Sumner and his wife are terrorized by these locals and at the end, when mild mannered and introverted David decides to take a stand, it’s one of the more violent finales of any revenge film. The highlight, at least for me, is when a man is killed by a bear trap around his neck. If you haven’t seen this film, and chances are many of you haven’t, try to find it. The 2011 remake is fairly decent, but not nearly as unsettling as the original.
Discover More: Top 10 Films editor takes an in-depth look at Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs
6. Stand By Me (Reiner, 1986)
Nope, this is not a misprint. Stand By Me is not a film about revenge, except for one small segment in the middle. Gordie Lachance, played by Will Wheaton, is the precocious storyteller of the group. As he and his friends are sitting around the campfire, he tells them the story of Davey “Lardass” Hogan. He was an obese kid who was picked on all of his life. He was only 12 years old but already weighed close to 200 pounds. There is a local pie eating contest where even local celebrities show up as contestants. Davey Hogan enters the contest and he is even ridiculed and berated as he gets up on stage. “Boy are you fat” “Chow down wide load” “Boom…babba…boom…babba…” Davey has finally had enough and he has found a way to extract revenge. Before entering the contest, he downs a bottle of Castor Oil and eats a raw egg. When he gets to the stage and begins eating pies at a record rate, his stomach finally can’t handle it. As he is about to ravage his sixth pie, his stomach rumbles, his face begins to turn a different shade of purple and then, up comes all the pies he just ate. He stumbles around and then turns to the previous winner and pukes a geyser of pies and gunk all over him. The smell and site of it all causes everyone to throw up on one another. “Girlfriends barfed on boyfriends, kids barfed on their mothers. A fat lady barfed in her purse, the Donnely twins barfed on one another.” All the while, Davey Hogan just sat back and admired his handy work. Revenge isn’t always about physical violence.
5. John Wick (Stahelski/Leitch, 2014)
John Wick is the boogeyman. He’s the one guy you don’t want to piss off. He has retired from the hitman business but he was so good at it, so proficient at killing that his name alone strikes fear into the Russian mob. One of my favourite scenes occurs after some young punks, one of them the son of the Russian mob leader, have killed John Wick’s dog, stolen his car and left Wick for dead. They bring the car into the local sweat shop where they plan to sell it for parts. The guy who owns the shop, Aureilo (John Leguizamo) recognizes the car and in his rage, he slaps the Russian mobster’s son across the face. In the ensuing conversation with Viggo Tarasev, the Mob leader, we find out how bad ass John Wick really is.
Tarasev: I heard you slapped my son
Aureilo: Yes, sir, I did
Tarasev: May I ask why?
Aureilo: Yea, well, he stole John Wick’s car sir and uh, killed his dog
(with a look like someone just walked on his grave) Tarasev: Oh.
Wick takes revenge on anyone and everyone involved. He goes after the son, his father and his entire network. At the end of the movie the mob is dead and their operation is severely disabled. John Wick is one of the more stylish films about revenge and John Wick the character really might be the boogeyman.
4. Carrie (De Palma, 1976)
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a sheltered and shy young woman who possess the power of telekinesis. This is a Stephen King story so nothing goes right for the characters. Carrie is raised by her fanatical, religious zealot of a mother (“they’re all going to laugh at you”). This has made her an outcast to her classmates. She tries to fit in and then when she finally feels that she has been accepted by her peers, they do the unthinkable to her. Hence we have the famous pig blood scene at the end of the movie. And this causes Carrie to explode. Her telekinesis is never explained and she has done everything she can to control it. But when she is humiliated and laughed at by her cruel peers, she unleashes deadly payback. Carrie is not only a terrific story but it is a film with two Oscar nominated performances. Both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie received nominations and because of this, perhaps they should have appeared on my top ten list of best performances in a Stephen King film.
Discover More: Top 10 Stephen King Adaptations | Top 10 Performances In Films Adapted From Stephen King Books
3. The Count Of Monte Cristo (Reynolds, 2002)
The Alexandre Dumas novel is a classic piece of literature. I haven’t seen some of the other films based on it that came before this one, but I don’t think they could be nearly as good as this interpretation by director Kevin Reynolds. Jim Caveizel plays Dantes. He is engaged to the beautiful Mercedes Iguanada (Dagmara Dominczyk). His best friend is jealous of him and wants his wife and his life, even though he comes from one of the wealthiest families in the land. Guy Pearce plays Mondego and he sets up Dantes and sends him to prison for a crime he obviously didn’t commit. In this prison, he is whipped, beaten and forced to live in squalid conditions. Here he meets Abe Farria, a prisoner also falsely imprisoned. This older man teaches him about politics, economics, wealth, physical fitness and swordsmanship. Upon his death he hands Dante a map that will lead to his fortune that he had buried. Dantes eventually finds this buried treasure and he seeks out Mondego not just to punish him but destroy him in every way possible. With his new found wealth and understanding of how to use this wealth, he extracts the kind of revenge that only happens in fairy tales.
2. Sleepers (Levinson, 1996)
Here’s a film that is terrific in every way. It’s directed by Oscar winner Barry Levinson and has an all star cast with the likes of Robert DeNiro, Kevin Bacon, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt, Jason Patric, Minnie Driver and many others. After a prank goes horribly wrong, a group of young boys are sent to a youth detention center. Here they are sodomized and physically abused by the prison guards and the warden, played by Bacon. This goes on for years and when they finally get out, now grown, two of the boys kill Bacon in a restaurant as he eats his dinner. They are sent to prison and are on trial for murder, but not all is as it seems. Although the boys went their separate ways upon being released from the detention center, they have a bond that can never be broken. Brad Pitt was one of the youths who went to that detention center and he is now the DA prosecuting the two men, his friends. No one knows of the connection and when he is done with the trial, not only will his two friends go free, but the men and the system responsible for their rape and torture will now be publicly humiliated and behind bars. It’s one of the better films of the 1990s.
1. I Spit On Your Grave (Monroe, 2010)
This is the ultimate revenge film. First off, a quick bit about the original. The 1978 film was put on a list of films called video nasties and it was banned in a multitude of countries because of the rape. I first saw the film in my teens and was shocked at how tame it was. I was expecting to see something like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left and what I got was basically a PG-13 version of what I read about. I have always believed that if people hadn’t have made such a fuss about the original film, it never would have been as popular as it was. So the irony is that the people who wanted it banned gave it new life and caused thousands of people to seek it out to find out what all the fuss was about, myself included. The remake is the best revenge film I have ever seen.
Sara Butler plays a young woman who flees to the country, rents a cottage and gets away from the big city life so she can write her next novel. Here she meets some local idiots who become infatuated with her and don’t take too kindly to her attitude. For a revenge film to work well, in my opinion, the crime has to be brutal and then the revenge becomes justified, at least thematically. The rape in this film is as hard to watch as any film I’ve seen. She is tormented, subjugated, raped and tortured. When they are finished with her, their plan is to shoot her and dump her body in the river. She manages to escape and lives in the woods and recovers enough to extract her revenge. Her rapists think shes dead and when she shows up, well, PG-13 this is not. Her idea of comeuppance is hard to watch but you root for her knowing what she went through. She does to them what they did to her and each death has a theme reminiscent of what each man put her through. For example, one of them told her not to use any teeth and this person ends up getting his teeth ripped out with a pair of pliers, one by one. This is all I can describe to you because the rest is about as hardcore as it gets. Sara Butler is outstanding here and she takes us on the journey with her. This is not a film for everyone, but if you can stomach it and you like seeing assholes get what’s coming to them, then there is no better revenge flick that this one.
Written & Compiled by Dan Grant
What have we missed? Name your fave revenge films…
See also: Top 10 Films About Vengeful Vigilantes