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…
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…
10. The Brave One (Jordan, 2007)
Vigilante: Erica Bain (Jodie Foster)
Victim: Boyfriend (murder)
One 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)
A 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)
One 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)
After 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)
A 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)
After 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)
An 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)
Keller 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)
In 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)
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)
Michael 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?