Revenge pictures are kinds of movies that Hollywood makes every now and then, because, in the pitch of some of these ideas is a thought provoking issue. If some unfair, tragic event happened to you, how far would you go to seek justice? What would be possible consequences of taking the law into your own hands? In addition, since movies are an escape, they provide an outlet for such fantasy. The bad guys in these films are rarely equipped to handle an average person who snaps. Or even a person who was in some part connected to law enforcement.

But this is a limited appeal. Revenge pictures don’t work. There are few exceptions, although even I wasn’t a huge fan of Quentin Tarintino’s Kill Bill films, although I will always enjoy his other pictures. I will concede that Kill Bill had a number of elements in its favor. The pop-culture references, the send up of the Shaw brothers kung fu pictures, and the mere fact that the fight between the Crazy 88’s and The Bride is a thrill. The reason why Kill Bill as well as The Crow have a following is because they booth added more than just a revenge picture. The Crow had not only a surpernatual element and a surreal worldscape, but also the accidental death of its star, Brandon Lee. In that film, the actor gives dialog like “I’m dead and I move”. It wasn’t meant to be literal, but since that film’s release, it is. When the sequels to The Crow happened, the morbid, if not entertaining appeal was gone. The unintended subtext was no longer there. The Crow, like most other characters that are based around revenge motives, have little going for them other than that. They exist for no other purpose. In general, revenge pictures don’t work. There’s usually nothing at stake for the protagonist but simply just to get even. The antagonist’s goals are only to be the foil for the retaliation. It becomes an action picture without action, just reaction.

Ray Stevenson in ' Punisher Warzone'

The Crow isn’t the only comic book character to show up on screen that went the revenge route. The three attempts at The Punisher, Marvel comics’ gun toting vigilante, have been less successful. Each of the three films have something in thier favor. The 1989 version with Dolph Lundgren may have shredded the trademark skull (aside from the knives) but there wound up being something at stake: the rescue of innocent kidnapped children who happened to be the offspring of mob bosses. The last boss even teamed up with Frank Castle to get his son back. For a low budget action film, it wasn’t bad. But all the events that lead into the third act are generally dull. Why?
Because there’s nothing that suspenseful about a vigilante dressed in black killing off dumb mob figures just for the sake of killing them for revenge.

Tom Jane in 'The Punisher'

When we get to the remake of 2003, the skull is back, fans are happy. The character of Frank Castle plays mind games with the mob boss Howard Saint’s and his henchman Quintin Glass. The character is in essence the same as the comics. The “fans” hate it because the character isn’t in an urban setting, and doesn’t blow bad guys away left and right. Writer-director Jonathan Hensliegh had it right. The character becomes more interesting and audience accessible due to dry humor, and that the character is still a loose cannon, but takes planning and precautions. He also cares about his new oddball friends, who also, in turn, look out for him. Once his quest for revenge is over, there is nothing much to live for. Only an inner strength stops him. The film’s major error, however, is the setup of villains. Howard Saint is a figurehead. Quentin Glass is the one leading the beach assault on the Castle family. Quentin is the one who tortures Castle’s neighbor for information. Quentin is more on the receiving end of Castle’s manipulation. From a storytelling standpoint, Glass should have been the last bad guy to go, if not the next to last. Not to mention that the manipulation and the defending of Castle’s neighbors has more effect. Before the final assault, it is clear “The Punisher” is causing losses of drug running and money laundering. But the showdown has less impact. There’s nothing at stake other than taking out what is left of the bad guys. Likewise, when Lionsgate released the film, Kill Bill vol2 and the remake of Man On Fire were within the same month. Three films with revenge themes will cancel each other out. Kill Bill vol2 was the best of the three at the box office, only because of vol1

In any case, that’s one of the reasons why a sequel to The Punisher(and eventual re-start) took so long. The character has limited appeal. You cannot please the hard core fans, who are a minority at best. When 2008’s Punisher War Zone came to pass, “the fans” loved it. The character, distant, unfeeling and indifferent, blew away every crook and criminal, armed and unarmed at the moment he met them. So quick was the character that he killed an undercover FBI agent. What is the response from other law enforcement, including those helping him (a possible nod to the Death Wish movies, where the law always looked the other way when the streets are clear)? They don’t care. hen Castle shows up with stolen mob money for the widow of the officer, it comes off as inappropriate. Everyone connected to Castle wants blood from the crooks. The bad guys become eccentric cartoons. In a last ditch attempt to justify the plot point that they raise and sweep the issue out of the way, the movie states, out of the blue, that the undercover agent was himself ripping off the mob. Again, the character of Castle lives only for bloodlust. Watching him gun down mob figures (even upside down) and mob wives isn’t exciting nor suspenseful. It is however, pure carnage at its best. But there’s nothing to hang the hat on; it is, by the end of the day, a rock video of a massacre. There is no suspense or anything thrilling. It was the worst Punisher of the three both critically and commercially. Rebooting with a new cast didn’t help.

Jodie Foster in 'The Brave One'

Likewise, the films The Brave One and Death Sentence were released within a month of each other in 2007. Both films posed ethical questions regarding average people pushed to the point of tracking down those responsible for killing those close to them- and becoming judge, jury and executioner. In the case of Death Sentence the bad guys kill for gang initation purposes. They then later decide to go after the rest of Nick Hume’s family when Nick kills one of them for payback. There is a genuine moment of fear here. This is also part of consequence. If Hume had testified against the young thug to begin with, the rest of the gang would not have come after him and his family. The picture makes a mistake however, because the only lesson learned is that Hume goes more psychotic, but becomes an expert marksman by the third act. It simply becomes a mindless war with nothing much at stake. It could have gone in a better direction, where Hume learns that there is cause and effect- but the gang won’t stop and he simply has to defend himself. Instead, he loses his soul and humanity. That’s the message of Death Sentence and why it is an unsatisfactory picture.

The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster, explored more of the idea, to the point where Erica Bain (Foster) becomes conflicted with her choices and the possibility of being caught by the police who investigate the rash of vigilante killings. However, by the film’s end, what was at stake, what did the character learn about herself? The police officer helps her kill the last thug responsible for the death of her fiance, and then covers it up. There are no consequences, other than perhaps inner guilt. The only mild suspense that comes from the film is those issues when she is a suspect, nothing more. The only thing at stake is getting her dog back. But when the police officer (played by Terrance Howard) helps her in the revenge plot, it steals away what has come before it.

If this is the mindset of this (and perhaps other) officers, why have vigilantes at all- for it’s the cops themselves who do the dirty work. What a bad message to send. If you’re going to comment on issues of morality, those who represent that morality cannot be immoral. If the character arc of the protagonist is to come back from a chosen darkness, there must be some sort of threat and/or punishment for that retribution to take place. If it does not, there is an impression of unsatisfaction. What is the film attempting to say? Is it something that an audience cannot identify with? In real life, victims of crime would like to see justice done. If the crooks are not caught, many take to civil action and/or activism. In revenge films, they can cater to our fantasy, but revenge is an empty feeling that accomplishes next to nothing. Most people don’t go to movies to be depressed and bored. Life can be bad enough.

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