Let’s survey all the revenge movies from Hollywood.
If you really think about it, “justice” is really a nice word for “revenge.” Or, viewed from another angle, “revenge” is just an illegal form of “justice.”
Even though we’re taught from childhood that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” why is it that audiences cheer when a victim strikes back ten times as hard against their attacker? Why is it considered a good thing when someone avenges a murder by torturing the killer and then murdering them?
If filmmakers actually cared about such questions, they’d find more success as philosophers or psychologists, because the fact is that audiences LOVE revenge movies.
From the Wild West to the present, American mythology has seen the outlaw vigilante justice-seeker as heroic, because he or she operates under “natural law” rather than manmade law, and sometimes manmade law stands in the way of taking justice into your own hands.
What follows are some of the greatest revenge films from the 1940s to the present.
This revenge comedy by famed director Preston Sturges is based on a short story called “Two Bad Hats.” Barbara Stanwyck stars as a woman of humble means who falls in love with an upper-class man (Henry Fonda), who rejects her because he doesn’t think she’s worthy of his social status. Later on, she reinvents herself as a high-society woman named “Lady Eve” and successfully seduces Fonda’s character, only to mock him and reveal that she’s the same woman he rejected when he thought she came from the lower classes. A reviewer for the Criterion collection writes, “As for Stanwyck—by turns hard-boiled, tender, vengeful, and resigned to an essential loneliness—her character is the heart of a movie in which everyone else comes up sooner or later against the limits of their empathy.”
Robert Mitchum turns in a terrifying performance as Max Cady, a recently released ex-con who is set upon wrecking the life of Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), the lawyer who put him behind bars. Cady kills the Bowden family dog, terrifies Mrs. Bowden, makes sexually predatory advances against their underage daughter, and stalks Sam at every turn, leading to a violent climax on a houseboat in Cape Fear, NC. The movie was remade in 1991 by Martin Scorsese starring Robert De Niro as Max Cady and Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden and using Bernard Herrmann’s original score from the 1962 film.
Quintessential 1960s scowling movie tough-guy Lee Marvin stars as Walker, a man who winds up shot by a crime partner who’d been sleeping with his wife but manages to get released from prison and go on a quest to retrieve his stolen money and his honor. But is Walker the good guy or the bad guy—and is he even alive, or have we been watching a ghost throughout the entire film? A reviewer in the Observer writes, “In Point Blank it’s because the single-mindedness of Walker’s quest for revenge and money is more recognizably human than the reptilian machinations around him.”
In this, the first big-budget film by “spaghetti Western” maestro Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), a harmonica-playing stranger teams up with a notorious bad guy to magically become the good guys, as they help to protect a vulnerable widow from a ruthless railroad assassin. Roger Ebert writes, “In between, we’re given a plot complex enough for Antonioni, involving killers, land rights, railroads, long-delayed revenge, mistaken identity, love triangles, double-crosses and shoot-outs. We’re well into the second hour of the movie before the plot becomes quite clear.”
Dustin Hoffman stars as David, an awkward American who moves to England with his beautiful and flirtatious wife (Susan George), only to face increasing harassment from local British thugs who have designs on his wife and view him as an unwelcome outsider. In the end, David turns to thunderous violence to salvage his self-esteem. A review in Top 10 Films states, “Sam Peckinpah’s film can easily be described as one of the greatest ever made….David is driven to instigating physical retribution because of the humiliation he feels at the hands of the bullies who now stand behind and support McKenna’s plight. He is angry and ashamed, he is now ready to fight his corner.”
Based on a novel by Lou Ellen Davis called There Was an Old Woman, the plot of Revenge! involves a pair of pub owners (Joan Collins and James Booth) who capture the man they think seduced and murdered their daughter by imprisoning him in a cage in their basement. This British film was finally released in the United States in 1976 as Inn of the Frightened People; when released on video in the US, its title was changed to Terror From Under the House.
In this early outing by legendary horror auteur Wes Craven, a pair of teenage girls who are on their way to a rock concert to celebrate one of their birthdays try to buy some marijuana in the city, only to be kidnapped, raped, and murdered by a gang of psychotic thugs. But as the thugs’ bad luck would have it, they stop at a nearby house after committing the murders. An older couple takes them in and soon realizes that the gang must have killed their daughter—and they set out for their own bloody revenge. The review blog That Moment In writes, “Although sitting through the scenes in The Last House on the Left is nothing to be enjoyed, the audience is at least rewarded for putting themselves through such an ordeal in seeing villains of the story subject to violence nearly on the same level of as committed against the two girls.”
Based on the novel by Forrest Carter called The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, Clint Eastwood directs and stars in the title role as a Missouri farmer in the Civil War era whose family is murdered by renegade Union soldiers. To get his revenge, he joins a guerrilla Confederate unit and refuses to surrender even after the Civil War ends, but he winds up on the run from both Union soldiers and bounty hunters.
Major Charles Rane (William Devane) returns home from the Vietnam War and his showered with gifts from his local townsfolk who consider him a hero. But some local thugs have their eyes set on some silver dollars he was given as a gift, and they stage a brutal home-invasion robbery in which they kill all of his family members. Rane and his war buddy Johnny plot his revenge by staging a showdown with the local thugs.
A Manhattan-based short-story writer named Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) decides to rent a Connecticut cottage to finish her first novel. Shortly after arriving, she is brutally raped by locals, who also tear up her manuscript. One by one, she gets revenge against her rapists. She castrates one man. She kills another with an axe to his back. She disembowels another with a boat propeller. And then she gets back to working on her novel.
Clint Eastwood returns to direct and start in another Western, this one about a mysterious man of God living high in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho who makes it his mission to protect the humble and hardworking villagers in a gold-prospecting town against a greedy mining company and their hired hands who persistently harass the locals into giving up their claims to the land. It is thought that the film’s title is derived from this quote in the biblical Book of Revelation: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”
Gary Busey stars as a Vietnam vet who returns home, only to find his hometown completely controlled by a sadistic, psychotic, and crack-dealing motorcycle gang. According to The Betamax Rundown, “Apparently the crack dealers are really mad at Busey for interrupting their rape of that nurse. So much so they are willing to kill his wife, all his friends and more, all in order to get their vengeance.” This leads to more vengeance from Busey, who winds up sodomizing one of the bikers (boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb) with a lit stick of dynamite. Yes, the movie is that ridiculous.
Annabella Sciorra stars as a happily married woman with a six-year-old daughter and another baby on the way. But when she visits her gynecologist, he sexually assaults her. She reports the assault to the police, which causes the gynecologist to kill himself. Months after she delivers her new baby, she hires a new live-in babysitter (Rebecca De Mornay). What she doesn’t know about the babysitter is that she’s actually the wife of the gynecologist who committed suicide, and she’s out to wreak vengeance on the woman who ruined her married life.
Clint Eastwood returns yet again to direct and star in another Western revenge movie, this time one which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. He portrays William Munny, a former Wyoming gunslinger who has retired to take care of his children after becoming a widower. He is hired to take revenge against two cowboys who permanently disfigured a prostitute after she mocked one of them for having a small penis. The prostitutes offer a monetary award for the cowboys’ deaths. Munny comes into town, takes care of business, and then moves his family to the relatively safe environment of San Francisco.
Brandon Lee, the son of martial-arts and film superstar Bruce Lee, stars as Eric Draven, a man who is resurrected from the dead after he and his fiancee were murdered. He comes back to wreak vengeance against the man who killed him and his betrothed. Lee also died on set during a tragic accident where a prop gun misfired. The Abominable Dr. Welsh writes, “Consider The Crow as something of a dark fairytale spin on the popular Hollywood revenge narrative….The Crow literally embraces ideas of natural law often referenced in the vigilante narrative.”
Mel Gibson produced, wrote, and stars in this Medieval revenge drama that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. He portrays William Wallace, a Scottish warrior who lost his brother and father fighting against the tyranny of King Edward I of England. He rescues a woman from being raped by English soldiers, but then the woman gets recaptured and executed. As an act of revenge, he leads his townsfolk to slaughter the English garrison and send a message of Scottish independence to the English.
After a group of young boys severely and accidentally injure a hot-dog vendor during a robbery, they are sent to an Upstate New York detention center, where they are brutalized and sexually assaulted by guards. Thirteen years after their release, two of the boys are now hardened criminals who run across one of the ex-guards at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen. Even though he denies abusing them, they shoot him dead in front of witnesses. Now they must hatch a scheme that involves getting a priest to perjure himself by claiming they were at a basketball game with him during the time of the shooting. It works, and they also get revenge against the other guards who abused them.
Ashley Judd stars as a woman who does prison time for her husband’s murder although she was completely innocent—her husband framed her and is still alive and in hiding. But due to the legal precedent of “double jeopardy,” she can’t get tried twice for the same murder. As a review in the LA Times explains it, “She also knows, thanks to one of her prison pals, that she can legally kill the guy again and not have to face trial because of ‘double jeopardy’ that allegedly protects her from getting convicted for the same crime twice.”
In this Steven Soderbergh film, Terence Stamp stars as a vicious and determined British gangster who travels to LA to get revenge against the man that he thinks is responsible for his daughter’s murder—a famous record producer (Peter Fonda) who lives high in the Hollywood hills. Roger Ebert writes, “What is ‘The Limey’ about? Drugs, girls, guns and revenge? Not at all. It’s about retirement. It’s about tough guys who talk big but are past their sell-by dates. They’re not fast enough for the ageless limey, who was cured in prison like beef jerky, and comes in low and fast.”
In this revenge film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Russell Crowe stars as Maximus Decimus Meridius, a Roman general who is brutally betrayed and sent into African slavery by the corrupt son of the emperor, who is played by Joaquin Phoenix. After training to be a gladiator in Africa under the tutelage of a retired gladiator (Oliver Reed), he returns to Rome and wows a crowd with his fighting prowess—allowing him an audience with the emperor’s son, where he delivers the line, “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the armies of the north, general of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor Marcus Aurelius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengeance in this life or the next.”
Guy Pearce stars as Leonard, a man with severe short-term memory loss who seeks to avenge his wife’s death but is hobbled by his memory problems to the point where he has to keep taking notes and even tattoo memos onto his own body. Roger Ebert addresses a major paradox with the film’s premise: “If the last thing the main character remembers is his wife dying, then how does he remember that he has short-term memory loss?…When someone tells Leonard, ‘Even if you get revenge, you’re not going to remember it,’ he doggedly replies, ‘My wife deserves revenge whether or not I remember it.”’
In this cinematic retelling of the 1844 novel by Alexandre Dumas, Jim Caviezel starts as Edmund Dantes, an explorer who is betrayed by his friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) and sent into solitary confinement on an island prison. But he is able to escape and return into polite society to get his revenge. Roger Ebert writes, “The various cliffs, fortresses, prisons, treasure isles and chateaus all look suitably atmospheric, the fight scenes are well choreographed, and the moment of Mondego’s comeuppance is nicely milked for every ounce of sweet revenge.”
Uma Thurman stars in this action-packed two-parter from master of revenge films Quentin Tarantino. Her character, a former assassin, is known only as “The Bride.” In the first installment, she awakens from a four-year coma to get revenge against the assassins who betrayed her and put her in a coma. In the second, she seeks to destroy her former lover and boss Bill, a bouncer named Budd, and a sinister character known as “one-eyed Elle.” She famously states, “It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack. Not rationality!” A review in Brill states, “As she approaches each subsequent assailant, the inevitability of death is at hand; throughout the film she is stabbed, shot, buried alive, and eludes death more than once. However, it is madness that ultimately enables her to reach her goal in killing Bill.”
An undercover FBI agent goes rogue and seeks vengeance against a shady businessman who killed his entire family at a reunion. The film’s consensus on Rotten Tomatoes states, “A good cast fails to elevate this overly violent and by-the-numbers revenge flick.” Director Jonathan Hensleigh said, “I had to ask myself intellectual questions like, ‘To what extent do crimes against a person become so unconscionable, so heinous, that even a person who does not believe in vigilantism can resort to vigilantism in a more just way?’ That was the equation for me.”
Hayley (Elliot Page) is a charming 14-year-old girl who sets up an Internet sting on Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a 32-year-old pedophile who meets young girls on chat rooms. When they meet, she spikes his drink, ties him up, and castrates him. Roger Ebert questions the film’s framing of sadistic revenge as moral: “David Slade’s ‘Hard Candy’ is against pedophilia, but what does it think about sadomasochism? Still, what precisely is going on here, and is it anywhere near as clear as it seems? Is Hayley perhaps getting some pleasure of her own out of the situation she has created for Jeff? Are there two perverts in the room?
Lifting many plot elements from The Phantom of the Opera, this revenge film is set in the future, where the USA is in tatters after a second Civil War and Europe is suffering the ravages of a pandemic known as “St. Mary’s Virus.” The UK is under the thrall of a fascist Nordic tyranny which imprisons sexual and racial minorities. “V” is a masked man who rescues a young woman from the secret police, and they team up to overthrow the tyrannical government.
In this revisionist telling of World War II, director Quentin Tarantino sets the film in Nazi-occupied France and focuses on a team of Jewish US soldiers who plot to kill Hitler and Goebbels while they’re attending a theatrical production. Den of Geek writes, “while most such stories typically chase the archetypal ‘Revenger’s Tragedy,’ each of Tarantino’s versions strive to turn violence into a larger cinematic catharsis….It is not only Tarantino’s masterpiece; it is his mission statement about the magic of movies, albeit in the form of a bloody incantation.”
A Swedish journalist named Mikael Blomkvist teams up with a young female hacker named Lisbeth Salander to investigate the murder of a woman that occurred 45 years ago. During their research, the find a string of dead female bodies throughout rural Sweden. A review in BrowardPalmBeach.com writes that the film “is basically a tale about brutalized females and a fantasy of feminist retaliation, exemplified when Salander handily dispatches a mugger or, after being grossly abused by her sadistic legal guardian, coolly stages a counter rape of absolute vengeance and then goes out clubbing.”
Robert (Antonio Banderas) is a brilliant plastic surgeon who is tormented by memories of his wife being burned and disfigured in a car accident. He invents a new form of polymer skin that can endure any kind of damage and still look good, but he experiments upon an unstable woman who may not have is best interests in mind. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert once again delves into whether revenge can go too far and become immoral itself: “Robert is driven by his science to try to repair tears in his heart. To do this, he assumes he has the godlike right to use the bodies and minds of other people: Their sacrifices are necessary to heal his pain.”
In this revenge fantasy Western by Quentin Tarantino, Django (Jamie Foxx) portrays a freed slave who enlists the assistance of a German bounty hunter, who helps him rescue his wife from a sadistic Mississippi slave-owner. As a review in The New Yorker explains, “The film is in two parts: the first half is a mock Western; the second is a mock-revenge melodrama about slavery, set in the deep South and ending in fountains of redemptive spurting blood.”
Dwight, a strange and essentially homeless man (the “Blue Ruin” of the title refers to the rusted-out husk of a Pontiac in which he lives) has his meaningless but quiet life disturbed when he returns home after being informed by a female cop that the accused killer of his parents is about to be released from jail. Film reviewer Susan Wloszczyna writes, “Suddenly, this formless lump of a man comes alive with purpose, often clumsily though with occasionally reliable instincts, as Dwight single-mindedly hunts down his prey. Though forced to resort to a knife after attempts to obtain a gun fail, he manages to slay his dragon.”
Denzel Washington stars as a quiet and humble Home Depot manager who eats dinner alone every night at the same restaurant. He becomes friends with a Russian waitress there and notices that she keeps coming to work with black eyes. He then seeks to make her Russian-gangster abusers’ lives a living hell. Vulture gave a negative review for its glorification of violent revenge: “There’s a special kind of hell for artists who array vigilante revenge-porn in saintly garb, and Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua should go to the front of that damnable line after The Equalizer….Movies are full of righteous executioners (among them Washington himself in Man on Fire), but none has ever done so much slaughtering with a halo so firmly affixed.”
Keanu Reeves stars in the title role as a retired hitman whose wife recently died. He returns to his old ways to find and slaughter the gang members who killed his dog, which was the only living thing left in his life that he still loved. The first three installments of the series were John Wick (2014), John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), and John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum (2019). All three of these films were box-office successes, grossing nearly $600 million combined. As of 2021, two more sequels were planned: John Wick: Chapter 4 (2022) and John Wick: Chapter 5 (2023), which were planned to be filmed at the same time.
Antonio Banderas returns to the revenge genre in this tale of a lawyer who takes a vow of silence that he promises to keep until he tracks down the killers of his wife and daughter and hands them his own form of violent justice. Bloody Disgusting writes, “I love a good revenge flick. The plots are always pretty standard — mild-mannered man has a loved one killed or brutally attacked and he’s forced to take justice into his own hands after the police bungle things. Acts of Vengeance looks to follow this same basic premise with Antonio Banderas as lawyer out to get revenge after his wife is killed. Boom, that’s enough for me.”
Mark Wahlberg stars as James Silva, a possibly autistic (it’s implied but never confirmed) intelligence officer in a top-secret tactical-command unit whose mission is to smuggle a high-profile police officer and defector from Indonesia out of the country. The defector claims to have knowledge of where a radiological agent called Celsium-139 is stashed away. At one point Silva acknowledges that compromise is impossible once that war has been declared: “Diplomacy rarely works once the match has been lit to start the fire.”
Cold Pursuit is one of the best winter horror movies out there. It’s also a comical, action-packed revenge film where a grieving father named Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) goes on an adventure to find out who killed his son and then to kill them to restore the scales of justice. It’s a widely amusing film, because while packed with violence the tone of the movie is playful, almost like a comic book and the storyline sort of teases the viewer with the question: Is this movie supposed to be funny or horrific?
Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra Thomas, a young woman who was traumatized by her friend Nina’s rape at a party seven years earlier. She goes to pickup bars and pretends to be blackout-drunk, then lures men home, only to lecture them about why it’s wrong to prey upon vulnerable women. At one point, though, she falls hard for a young man named Ryan—only to realize that Ryan was at the party where Nina was raped and doesn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with what happened.
In this adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel, Michael B. Jordan stars as Navy SEAL John Clark, who is out to avenge his wife’s murder. Clark is based in Syria and is tasked with rescuing a CIA agent who’d been taken captive by Russian forces. As he dives into the case, he realizes the conspiracy is much larger than he’d imagined. New Times San Luis Obispo summarizes the plot thusly: “Man kills a bunch of bad guys, associates of bad guys kill man’s wife, man tortures and murders Russian ambassador for info about one bad guy who escapes, man goes to prison, man finds a way out of prison, man seeks revenge.”
Other Revenge Movies
- The Night of the Hunter (1955) a family seeks revenge against a psychotic preacher (Robert Mitchum) who is trying to steal the family fortune.
- The Bride Wore Black (1968) after her mother prevents her from committing suicide, a woman pursues her own twisted “revenge” against her mom by wedding and killing five men she hardly knows.
- The Great Silence (1968) a gunfighter who’s unable to speak defends locals against a predatory gang of bounty hunters.
- The Sting (1973) a small-time grifter (Robert Redford) teams up with a brilliant card sharp (Paul Newman) to get his vengeance against a former boss (Robert Shaw) who betrayed him.
- Lady Snowblood (1973) a woman is raised from birth to seek vengeance against the men who raped her mother. Lady Snowblood was said to be a prime inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies
- Enter the Dragon (1973) when a martial artist (Bruce Lee) discovers who was responsible for killing his sister, he seeks to destroy them.
- Death Wish (1974) a vigilante (Charles Bronson) seeks blood vengeance against the thugs who raped his daughter and killed his wife.
- Carrie (1976) a shy, bullied teenage girl (Sissy Spacek) wreaks a horrific vengeance against the schoolmates who humiliated her.
- Mad Max (1979) in a post-apocalyptic future, a highway patrolmen (Mel Gibson) seeks to get even with a gang of predatory bikers who are terrorizing the countryside.
- 9 to 5 (1980) three women (Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda) attempt to give their sexist boss (Dabney Coleman) his comeuppance.
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Khan, a former nemesis of Admiral Kirk, returns out of the blue to attack his rival.
- The Karate Kid (1984) a bullied schoolboy (Ralph Macchio) learns to defend himself with the help of an aging martial artist (Pat Morita).
- Rolling Vengeance (1987) a young trucker whose family was murdered by hooligans who suffered no legal consequences builds an unstoppable monster truck and sets out on the road to seek personal justice.
- The Princess Bride (1987) a swordsman named Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) avenges his father’s death right after uttering this immortal line: “My name is Inigo Montoya, you’ve killed my father, prepare to die.”
- The Mask of Zorro (1998) the aging swashbuckler returns from a 20-year prison stint to train a young swordsman in an attempt to get revenge against his captors.
- Jawbreaker (1999) after some girls accidentally kill a friend they were taking to a surprise party—and then cover it up—a dogged detective tries to get justice for the dead girl.
- Gangs of New York (2002) a Martin Scorsese film with a plot about a gangster trying to avenge his father’s death.
- Old Boy (2003) after a 15-year period of incarceration for reasons which were never explained to him, a man is released and realizes his wife has been murdered, which sets him on a path of revenge.
- Law Abiding Citizen (2009) after a man’s wife and daughter are murdered and the killer goes free after only ten years, the man goes on a vengeance spree that endangers an entire city.
- Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) a young college-bound student (Shia Laboeuf) teams up with Optimus Prime and Bumblebee to wreak punishment on the Decepticons who seek to destroy planet Earth.
- Now You See Me (2013) a magician plots his comeuppance against the man who forced his father to do a magic trick that ended in his father’s death.
- Gone Girl (2014) a husband (Ben Affleck) who is cheating on his wife (Rosamund Pike) gets framed for murder by the scorned wife.
- The Revenant (2015) Leo DiCaprio stars as a pioneer in the frozen American wilderness who is left to die by two men he thought were his friends, but he lives—and seeks to enact personal justice against them.
- Boy Missing (2016) a female lawyer whose son was kidnapped and whose kidnapper was released for lack of evidence takes the law into her own hands.
- The Handmaiden (2016) a young woman who lives on an estate and has a massive inheritance must deal with her new handmaiden and a conman who wish to defraud her.
- Revenger (2018) a former police detective decides that prison isn’t enough punishment for the man who killed his family, so he visits a prison island to personally confront the killer.
- Polar (2019) the sole survivor of a hitman who was tasked to murder an entire family becomes the hunter rather than the hunted.
- Russian Raid (2020) a Russian ex-spy seeks to enact personal justice against the most dangerous man in Russia.