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16 Great Revenge Movies Worth Hunting Down

by The Playlist Staff
March 8, 2013 1:56 PM
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16 Revenge Movies

This weekend, "Dead Man Down" finds Colin Farrell out for vengeance on behalf of both his family and his scarred love interest Noomi Rapace. And he's hardly the first in recent months: from the "Gangster Squad" out to avenge a fallen comrade, to Hansel & Gretel hunting the witch that killed their parents, to Sylvester Stallone & Sung Kang hoping to put a "Bullet to the Head" of Jason Momoa, revenge has been a consistent motivator in many of the films of 2013, and that's set to continue as the year goes on, with payback proving crucial to "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," "Iron Man 3," "Star Trek Into Darkness," "The Lone Ranger," "The Wolverine," "Prisoners," "Carrie," "47 Ronin" and many more of the biggest films of the next 12 months.

Of course, this is nothing new: revenge is one of the most common themes in cinema. Hell, some filmmakers seem to focus entirely on it (*cough* Quentin Tarantino). And so with "Dead Man Down" hitting theaters today, we decided to delve into the history of vengeance in cinema, highlighting sixteen notable, revenge movies. We've tried to mix the essentials of the genre with some picks that might be less familiar to you, but we of course didn't have space for everything, so let us know your own favorites in the comments section. Or you could, you know, track us down to avenge your honor or something.

The Big Heat
"The Big Heat" (1953)
Surprisingly few film noirs deal with revenge as a plot, and while 1953's "The Big Heat" has a more straightforward narrative than some of the crime pictures of the period (in many ways, it's a forerunner to the contemporary action movie), stylistically Fritz Lang's film is very much of a piece with the classic film noir. Glenn Ford stars as homicide cop Dave Bannion who, while investigating the death of a colleague, soon discovers how far the tendrils of the local mob, led by Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and Vince Stone (an early stand-out turn from Lee Marvin). His inquiries take a tragic turn when his car is blown up by the criminals, with wife Katie inside, causing Bannion to quit the department in order to bring the murderers to justice, with the aid of Stone's girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame). It's now a generic tale sort of premise, and Ford's charmlessness does the film few favors, but it's also thrillingly intense, visceral stuff, with a level of violence that you're surprised ever got past the Code, and a great femme fatale (one who causes the downfall of the villain, and herself, rather than the hero) in Grahame. And Lang, of course, directs the hell out of it, letting the corruption of an entire city (including the straight-arrow, but somewhat heartless Bannion) slowly bubble over. By the end, the cop has his revenge, but any sense that it'll change things is fairly unconvincing.

"Braveheart" (1995)
Tough as it is to imagine for anyone born after the eighties, there was a time when instead of being a reviled anti-semite and Hollywood pariah, Mel Gibson was actually one of the most high profile and bankable movie stars on the planet. Directing 13th Century Scottish epic "Braveheart" may well have been the peak of his star power, and this fact explains not only the desire of the films backers to have the perma-tanned and not-especially-versatile Australian actor in the lead, but also how such a deeply, deeply silly film went on to win Best Picture and chow down more than $200 million worldwide.  Historically accurate this film is not, and this is never better illustrated than in the classic, and utterly bonkers, revenge scene: Alun Armstrong’s eyebrows play Mornay, the duplicitous Scottish noble who betrays William Wallace to the English. Mornay wakes quivering and sweating after a scary dream; a woad-faced Wallace emerging demon-like from a wall of fire. Believing it to be just a dream, Mornay relaxes for about 2 seconds before Wallace barges in to his bedroom on horseback, using the horse to batter down the door. At this Mornay looks understandably apprehensive. The silent and stoic Wallace then mounts Mornay’s bed with the horse, swings his quite-large mace , and crushes the unfortunate betrayers skull as he lies in his bed. Of course, this is only the most direct example in a film that's all about vengeance: the first act of Randall Wallace (no relation)'s screenplay sees William's father, brother and new wife (Catherine McCormack) all cut down by the English, inspiring his uprising. It won't shock you that there's very little historical evidence for any of this...

Dead Man's Shoes
"Dead Man's Shoes" (2004)
An atypically genre-y exercise from the Martin Scorsese of the Midlands, Shane Meadows ("This Is England"), "Dead Man's Shoes" blends the revenge movie, the horror flick and kitchen-sink realism into a film that might remain one of the directors' most satisfying pictures. Paddy Considine gives one of his best performances as Richard, a former soldier who returns home to discover that his disabled brother (Toby Kebbell) has been abused physically and mentally by a group of local drug dealers. Donning a creepy gas mask, he sets out to take his vengeance, first toying with the men responsible, then gruesomely offing them one by one. There's nothing particularly innovative about the plot (beyond a twist involving Kebbell's character), but Meadows does interesting things with perspective; by spending as much time with the dealers as with Richard, Meadows almost turns the film into an inversion of the slasher film, while keeping everything grounded enough that it never feels overly stylized or unlikely. And by mixing gritty estates with gorgeous Derbyshire landscape and a incongruously effective folk soundtrack by Warp Records that includes Calexico, Richard Hawley and M. Ward, among others, the director gives the revenge movie a very different, and very British, tone. The plotting is perhaps too thin, even for the 86 minute runtime, but it feels like the moment where Meadows really came of age as a filmmaker.  

Death Wish
"Death Wish" (1974)
One of the most well-known and successful revenge films in history (which sparked four sequels, one semi-remake (James Wan's "Death Sentence"), and a currently-in-development full remake recently vacated by director Joe Carnahan), "Death Wish" is also probably the worst film on this list, but one whose influence and reputation probably means it should figure somewhere here. Based on the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, the film (directed by Michael Winner, who passed away earlier this year) stars Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, a New York architect whose wife is murdered, and daughter raped, by a gang of local hoodlums (including a young Jeff Goldblum). With the police telling him it's unlikely the attackers will ever be found, the previously liberal Paul becomes a vigilante, laying down the law (normally in the shape of bullets) on the crime-ridden streets of the city. Unusual for the genre in that it features a man taking out his vengeance not on the people directly responsible (who are never seen again), but on other similar criminals, the film's reasonably compelling in its depiction of a grubby, pre-Guiliani New York, but abhorrent in its politics (and perhaps more importantly, in its plotting, which mainly just jumps from one mugger-shooting to another). Many of these movies acknowledge that there's a satisfying power in revenge: only "Death Wish" carries that on to all criminals, everywhere, and he result is borderline fascistic, and makes you want a shower afterwards.

The Great Silence
"The Great Silence" (1968)
Though he's generally overshadowed by countryman Sergio Leone when it comes to the Spaghetti Western, Sergio Corbucci was behind a few brutal, violent classics of the genre (most notably the original "Django"), and his finest hour might have come with 1968's "The Great Silence." Set, almost uniquely for the genre, among the snowy hills of Utah, in the midst of a terrible blizzard, it toplines "Amour" star Jean-Louis Trintignant (Michael Haneke is an avowed fan of "The Great Silence," interestingly) as a gunfighter named Silence. As the name might suggest, he's even more taciturn than the usual Western hero; his vocal cords were cut by the bounty hunters who murdered his parents. As a result, he travels around, killing other bounty hunters by instigating them to draw on him first, but he finds a more specific outlet for his vengeance when he's hired by Pauline (Vonetta McGee), whose husband has been shot down by the vicious bounty hunter Loco (Klaus Kinski) and his cohorts. Like Corbucci's other films, it's ultra violent (it was even banned in some territories) and intriguingly morally nebulous; as Loco is fond of pointing out, he's been acting firmly within the purview of the law, making Silence a villain to some degree, even if he only operates in (provoked) self defense. The broad scope of views and perspectives is part of what makes this Corbucci's most interesting film, along with the unforgettable screen presence of Trintignant and Kinski; a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the two arthouse icons square off. The film's probably most famous for its ending; this is the rare film in which vengeance isn't achieved, as Silence and Pauline are brutally gunned down by Loco, who goes entirely unpunished. Unsurprisingly, Corbucci was forced to shoot another ending for U.S. audiences...

In The Bedroom
"In The Bedroom" (2001)
Decidedly on the classier end of the spectrum than some of its more exploitation-minded revenge movie cousins, "In The Bedroom" is a film still undervalued by many, dismissed by those who haven't seen it as 'Oscar bait' due to the heavy-handed campaign Harvey Weinstein ran. In fact, the film was an under-the-radar Sundance title, and if you ignored it at the time due to the Miramax label and For Your Consideration ads, it's definitely time to give the picture a second look, because it's arguably one of the best American films of the 2000s. Based on a short story by Andre Dubus, and marking the directorial debut of former actor Todd Field, it centers on happily married New England couple Matt & Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek), whose son Frank (Nick Stahl) is just back from college and has started seeing an older, soon-to-be-divorced woman (Marisa Tomei). But her ex, Richard (William Mapother) is unhinged and violent, and shockingly, midway through the film, kills Frank, leaving his parents grief-stricken. It's a slow, graceful picture that's so careful about wringing out its quiet devastation that you barely notice until it's snuck up on you, and it's all the more powerful for it, particularly when it comes to the performances, which are impeccable across the board. The revenge aspect comes late -- Matt, frustrated by legal complications in the killer's trial, and impotent and emasculated otherwise, abducts and kills Richard. Field is interestingly even-handed about it; not afraid to suggest that the further spilling of blood will have real power to heal the Fowlers, while not ignoring the possibility that it may have made things work. It's a tragedy that Field's only made one subsequent film: hopefully "The Creed Of Violence" will finally get before cameras next year.

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  • Movielover123 | August 20, 2014 5:01 PMReply

    I have to say the very best revenge Story of all time is The Count of Monty Cristo!

  • SteveP | August 3, 2014 9:09 AMReply

    Dogville - One of my favorites of all time and the best thing Nicole Kidman was in. Ruthless.

  • theRiley | May 24, 2014 10:06 AMReply

    city of industry
    one-eyed jacks
    blue ruin
    rob roy
    lethal animals v steve irwin (i kid)

  • tfox | May 23, 2014 3:30 PMReply

    High Plains Drifter - better than any on the list.

  • inrime | May 10, 2014 8:13 PMReply

    I truly enjoyed Na Hong Jin's The Chaser. I think everything about it is awesome. I'd rank it as high as Oldboy. Fantastic film.

  • Sam | April 24, 2014 10:04 PMReply

    I Saw The Devil is for sure my #1

  • passingby | March 23, 2014 3:19 PMReply

    What about "The heiress"? A wonderful movie and one which goes to prove that revenge doesn't always go down the road of physical violence.

  • Clint B | March 13, 2014 1:08 AMReply

    I had seen many of these and was surprised to find "Revenge" so high on various lists. It was so cheaply made I couldn't get into it (and I am a HUGE Madeleine Stowe fan AND Kevin Costner fan).

    However, the most shocking omission was "Man on Fire" with Denzel Washington and Christopher Walken. A baddy meeting his end by having C-4 shoved...into a body cavity doesn't even make the list? It is one of my all time favorite movies that gets watched repeatedly while "Revenge" collects dust on the shelf.

  • CLINT B | March 13, 2014 1:13 AM

    "Man On Fire" also contains one of the best quotes ever delivered as only Christopher Walken can deliver it.

    "A man can be an artist... in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasey's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece."

  • crispy | November 20, 2013 5:27 PMReply

    "I Saw The Devil" and "Oldboy" are the best revenge movies
    + Law Abiding Citizen
    +The Brave One
    +Death Sentence
    And let's not forget The One Man Army, The mob/yakuze/murderers/drug dealers/pimps scum bags Executioner And Exterminator , Frank Castle (aka The Punisher - 3 movies)

  • Charles Boot | February 23, 2014 3:06 PM

    Yes, Oldboy! That should be #1. The S. Korean original film, that is. Avoid Spike Lee's American remake at all costs.

  • Sky | October 11, 2013 7:07 PMReply

    Hey everyone, I gotta say, these movies are awesome and I have totally found some that I'm interested in. However, there is one specific movie that I've been wanting to watch. I watched it already and I've been searching like crazy and I can't find it. Thing is I don't know the name but I hope someone here knows it and can tell me cause I really need to watch it again. It's where a man and his daughter with a about 2 or 3 men along with them are driving in their van and this married couple drives up behind them and needs to pass them but the men wanted to start trouble so they refused to let them pass. The couple overtook them and the man got pissed off.. and followed the couple. They got hold of them and raped the wife in front of her husband and they either cut his eye lid or they cut it out not sure and they beat them up. The couple didn't die though but some time later they got revenge on them by capturing the daughter of the main culprit and when he comes looking for her they grab hold of him. The husband snipes out his friends and the wife assaults or (raped) the man who raped her first with a m16 or was it an AK47.. i'm not sure.. Can anyone help me out here please... I'm desperate for it.. Thank you much.

  • nick tabri | February 28, 2014 10:58 AM

    Straightheads aka Closure w/ Gillian Anderson

  • ericolmstead | August 31, 2013 5:31 PMReply

    Good list.......but what about Sleepers????? Perhaps it was not chosen because it didn't have any "Names" in the movie. Just Robert Deniro, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, Mini Driver, Jason Patric, etc.

  • Charles Boot | February 23, 2014 3:07 PM

    Nice. Good call with Sleepers. Very underrated film.

  • Lisa Thatcher | July 6, 2013 6:35 AMReply

    Great list.
    I wanted to ad a shout out for Roman Polanski's Death and the Maiden. One of the best revenge films ever, because you are not sure (till right at the end) if the guy she is taking her revenge on is the Doctor who tortured her, and you can't be sure if she is taking Revenge on her husband (till the end) for abandoning her when she was captured. Incredible film.

  • MC HAMMA | June 4, 2013 2:26 AMReply

    The Crow anyone?

  • Sandy McReynolds | May 6, 2013 11:48 PMReply

    Once Upon a Time in the West

    The Professional

  • B.B. | May 4, 2013 5:18 PMReply

    ok... just watched one of the best films of the 70's apparently. 'Rolling Thunder' was average at best, and yet 'Death Wish' is meant to be the worst! It's a brilliant film, as you really feel for charlie bronson. Didn't care much for the main character in Rolling Thunder.

  • Johnny Risko | March 13, 2013 11:04 AMReply

    Special mention to Wrath Of Khan, notable for portraying the revenge as the antagonist's motivation as well as salvaging this franchise from imminent demise. Tarrantino has cited this as a revenge movie that gets it right, sparing no blood. Also an homage to Moby Dick, another ommision from this list: "To the last, I will grapple with thee... from Hell's heart, I stab at thee! For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee!"

  • aquarius1271 | March 13, 2013 4:02 AMReply

    "Revenge" is awesome!

  • Toecutter | March 12, 2013 5:08 AMReply

    No MAD MAX? Really? Really?!

  • Toecutter | March 12, 2013 4:19 AMReply

    No MAD MAX? Really? Really?!

  • Toecutter | March 12, 2013 4:18 AMReply

    No MAD MAX? Really? Really?!

  • Ronnie D. | March 11, 2013 7:11 AMReply

    You can't make a list of great revenge films, and not include "I Saw the Devil", perhaps the magnum opus of revenge flicks - definitely the most emotionally intimate and deeply personal of all revenge films, especially since you talk about the revenge trilogy, which finds a lot of the same people involved.

  • RICK SR. | March 10, 2013 10:46 PMReply

    This was a quite a smart and comprehensive list/article and I happened to like it. My TOP 5 favorites from the listed being: 5. REVENGE, 4. THE GREAT SILENCE, 3. MUNICH, 2. IN THE BEDROOM & (without a doubt) 1. KILL BILL, VOL. 1 & 2 (My rate is: VOL. 1: 8.3/VOL. 2: 8.7, which makes Volume 2 my slightly better favorite, by a notch)
    I think that two great movies that were overlooked and should be considered for a larger list (let's say a Top 20-25) are: Lars von Trier's DOGVILLE (2003) and Peter Jackson's HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994). Both these film prove the case that even though a film doesn't focus on revenge throughout the plot and the story-line as an M.O. it sure makes for not only an effective & compelling ending but also one that alters and redefines the whole structure of the story and the perception of the public. Would these two tales (films) be as powerful and riveting (even endearing) if it weren't for their blood-stained vengeful resolutions?
    Let's ask this: Would Dogville be viewed and appreciated as it is (held high in the world's critics' eyes at the time it came out, enthusiastically received by the general audiences and ever since cherished in the hearts and honorably kept in 1,000s of fans' top-lists) if it weren't for its wildly unexpected outcome (WARNING! HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD: Grace assuming and displaying her previously inconceivable mob power by choosing to execute the whole VILLE, except the DOG that is)?? and "Heavenly Creatures", despite being a relatively short budget (an estimate of $5,000,000) flick would it have earned all the audience's amazement (being taglined as "The true story of a crime that shocked a nation" must prove that a 'lil difficult) and all that critic's praise it received, even earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, if it hadn't been not only for Peter Jackson's outstanding writing (with Fran Walsh) and directing, not only for both the girl's heart-stopping performances (aside the fact that this was Kate Winslet's first big film, not dismissing the lovely and talented Melanie Lynskey who has proved lasting versatility, letting us still enjoy her in "Two and a Half Men" today) and not only for its lush and sensitive production design and cinematography but (finally getting to the point, phew!) SPOILER ALERT! for Julie (Winslet) and Pauline (Lynskey)'s shocking & desperate final decision which results in the cold-blooded murder of Pauline's mother!?
    Now that was a very unexpected and breathtaking conclusion, wasn't it? None of this movies (DOGVILLE nor HEAVENLY CREATURES) would have been the same if it weren't for their surprising skin-crawling, chilling endings which are completely and utterly set and determined by REVENGE.

  • SteveP | August 3, 2014 9:13 AM

    Dead on about Dogville, Rick. "Tell her you'll stop if she can hold back her tears."

  • Guijon | March 10, 2013 10:05 PMReply

    Aw, Revanche is my favorite. I'm kind of sad you guys didn't have space for/didn't feel strongly enough about it.

  • Ty | March 9, 2013 11:12 PMReply

    PAYBACK! My favorite revenge movie and one of Mel Gibson's best roles.

  • Depp | March 9, 2013 8:07 AMReply

    G I Joe Retaliation Movie Download

  • RICK SR. | March 10, 2013 10:57 PM

    this comment is SPAM, ur gonna get spammed, dude!

  • Depp | March 9, 2013 8:07 AMReply

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    G.I. Joe Retaliation Movie Download

  • Charles Boot | February 23, 2014 3:04 PM

    Hats off to you for not responding to Rick Sr's pointless, incoherent, spammy "sermon" (as he calls it). Normally I wouldn't watch anything with G. I. Joe. I didn't like the cartoon/action figures when I was a kid, and still don't, but it has a 5.9 rating on IMDb (not the worst rated film mentioned here) and, given what Rick Sr. wrote, something that he detests that much just has to be good.
    I'll check it out! Thanks!

  • RICK SR. | March 10, 2013 11:31 PM

    This is spam, dude, your comment should be eliminated.
    Besides, who wants to download G.I. Joe Retaliation??
    I don't care that it hasn't hit theaters yet (I just read it comes out March 29), that doesn't make it any more exciting or appealing.
    Of all the revenge movies listed and mentioned here that's gotta be about the weakest and worst of all. I'm sure (even though I haven't watched it, don't want to either) it must be too mainstream, too Hollywood, you see:
    Well, there goes my sermon, mate, but that's about as true as it gets.
    P.S. Have a NICE DAY and don't (just) post STUPID comments (I know this is gonna be the second "just" but I don't care, I'm trying to make a POINT here) JUST BECAUSE, it's a pointless WASTE of pixels, website page and the TIME of all the people who go through the comments LOOKING for something that's actually CONSTRUCTIVE and WORTHWHILE to read!!

  • TheoC | March 9, 2013 7:04 AMReply

    great list I want to watch all these right now.

  • Ghislaine | March 8, 2013 11:03 PMReply

    The Bride Wore Black. Francois Truffaut's film based on a Cornell Woolrich novel. Jeanne Moreau is the bride, whose new husband is gunned down on the church steps moments after their wedding. One by one, she hunts down and kills every man responsible. Irresistible.

  • KJ | March 8, 2014 8:29 PM

    I second "The Bride Wore Black." Also to be considered is "The Page Turner". It's a much slower-moving narrative lacking excitement but presents an equally focused (even obsessed) agent of revenge for whom you are somewhat less lured into sympathy, even while admiring her determination.

  • Charles Boot | February 23, 2014 2:50 PM

    Tarantino claims that he has never seen The Bride Wore Black.
    Liar! LOL

  • Stephen B | March 8, 2013 10:52 PMReply

    The Limey, Get Carter, Carrie...and I have a soft spot for Man On Fire.

  • Ryan Michaels | March 8, 2013 10:52 PMReply

    Eeeek, I'd have appreciated if you hadn't spoiled the outcomes of a lot of these movies ("The Great Silence" is sitting right next to me and it kinda blows that I now know the outcome.) Nevertheless, really cool list -- one really notable exclusion to me though was Kim-Ji Woon's "A Bittersweet Life", one of the definite high points of the Korean New Wave in my eyes.

  • @cinejordan | March 8, 2013 7:40 PMReply

    Good call on 'In the Bedroom.' I never would have thought of that one.

  • Austin | March 8, 2013 5:18 PMReply

    (the original) I Spit on Your Grave? Devil's Rejects is another one

  • cirkusfolk | March 8, 2013 4:30 PMReply

    Two words: Mad Max

  • jon | March 8, 2013 2:18 PMReply

    The Great Silence is a terrible movie.

  • Josh | March 8, 2013 2:14 PMReply

    Great list! In university we had an English/Film course that dedicated itself to Women and Revenge in Film. Pretty niche topic but unbelievably there was a lot to cover. After the course, I would say that I'm very interested in seeing women kill for revenge now.

    Our first screening was for 'I Spit on Your Grave'. The original one. No cuts. No fast-forwards. Just the whole thing. I'm surprised that it isn't on your list, actually!

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