Revenge is Sweet: 15 of the Greatest Betrayal Films Ever Brought to the Big Screen
What is revenge? According to the dictionary, it basically boiled down to getting retribution for a wrong committed against someone. Sometimes, revenge signified exposing someone as a criminal or publicly embarrassing them in a way that cut them off at the knees.
In Hollywood, the act of revenge was usually demonstrated through rather bloody and violent means. There was even a television show called Revenge that aired between 2011 to 2015 that involved one woman's quest to destroy one wealthy family for ruining her father's life. The show was so popular that there are rumors circulating of a revival show with mostly new characters and a new quest for retribution. Everyone loved a good crime story and a strong helping of punishment to go with it.
In terms of movies, revenge tales were meant to be exceedingly lethal between intense performances with even grander action scenes. Older Hollywood films took the less is more approach, while later day flicks took a front and center technique to keep viewers glued to their seats. Sure, the violence can be shocking, but it was always what lurked beneath that carried a much more potent message. Love and friendship were more important than money and status symbols. Those things were always in conflict in reprisal tales and will continue to be in conflict as long as movies were being made.
Here is a list of fifteen films about revenge that are separated into various categories from tragedy to love affairs being cut brutally short. Read on to see if your favorite film made the cut or just missed it by a margin.
Good Guys Bullied
Straw Dogs (1971)- What happens when you're pushed to your breaking point? That happened to mild mannered David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) in this brutal revenge flick from Director Sam Peckinpah. Sumner and his young wife return to her hometown to start a life together, but they're only met with resistance from the local bullies. They terrorize the young couple in increasingly violent and dangerous ways, until Sumner reached his limit and decided to fight back. Of course, he did in drastically brutal Peckinpah like fashion by filling his treasured home with lethal booby traps. Surely, his way to exact payback will be hard to forget, even though Hollywood tried to replicate it in a forgettable remake.
First Blood (1982)- The first installment of the Sylvester Stallone led franchise about battered hero John Rambo got off to an auspicious start because he didn't begin as a hero. In this movie he was more of the anti-hero pushed to his breaking point. He was on a mission to visit an old friend, but all he received was trouble even when he wasn't causing anything. He came across a group of local law enforcement officers who bullied his mere unkempt presence. Since he wasn't clean shaved like the rest of the world, they mocked and pushed him to the breaking point. They even brutalized him to the point where it brought him back to his painful past in the Vietnam War. Psychologically, he was pushed to the point where he had to fight back against his tormentors. This battle led to a deadly fight in the woods that could lead to Rambo's destruction. Luckily, his Commander (Richard Crenna) came to save him. The film's original ending was a lot bleaker with Rambo taking his own life, but the powers that be prevented the ending from seeing the light of day in order to have another franchise for Stallone to hang his hat on. The follow-up films had a decidedly different tone than the original, which was a shame, even though they provided their own level of entertainment.
Cape Fear (1991)- This is a remake of the 1962 classic that was just as unnerving, but DeNiro's character was even more terrifying this time around. Beware of wronging a dangerous inmate because the consequences can be deadly. When Max Cady's (Robert DeNiro) lawyer failed to do all he could to keep his client out of prison, he made a long time enemy looking to destroy him. Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) thought that if he made sure a guilty man went to prison there would be nothing to worry about. Boy, he was wrong when Cady was released from prison. The ever so lethal Cady made a beeline for his former lawyer with the intent to destroy him and his seemingly happy family. He even targeted his rebellious teenage daughter. As the story went on, the battle between Bowden and Cady got worse and worse. It was meant to only end one way with one of them dead. At least, the film's director Martin Scorsese gave viewers a memorable ending to give them a satisfying conclusion as to who the victor ended up being.
Death Wish (1974)- Charles Bronson played a mild mannered architect who becomes a one man vigilante hit squad after his wife was murdered by some New York street punks. He changed rapidly and became a dispenser of street justice when the law seemed to throw their collective hands in the air. Bronson's character was a 1970s version of The Punisher minus a disguise. Was he justified in his actions or was he just as bad as the criminals he wanted to punish? Hard to say, but it was still entertaining nonetheless. Unfortunately, it spawned four other films in an unexpected franchise and a skippable 2018 remake.
Man on Fire (2004)- In this remake, Denzel Washington played a former government agent who now worked as a bodyguard to a young girl (Dakota Fanning). Slowly, they formed a bond that allowed the rough and tumble man to soften up. One day, his charge is unexpectedly kidnapped and he's left wounded. Now, he's pulling out all of the stops to rescue the girl who came to mean so much to him, even if it meant trading his life for hers. A true act of friendship that was both sad and touching at the same time.
The Revenant (2015)- Leonardo DiCaprio played a man pushed to his breaking point in every way that counted. He was barely clinging to life after being mauled by a bear and his son is killed in front of him when he was too injured to help save him. DiCaprio's character spent most of the film traveling through the bleakest of circumstances to kill the man (Tom Hardy) who took his son away from him. It's as simple as that. Sure, the visuals were stunning and the journey was grand, but it was tale as old as time: good old fashioned revenge. His character was betrayed by both man and nature; eager to fight back against both he found the strength he needed to go on. That was why he won the Oscar. Awards shows love a good journey to hell and back, because it showcased how an actor and actress truly flexed their muscles. He deserved the awards, but it was a film that won't get too many repeat viewings.
Hitmen Fighting Back
Leon: The Professional (1994)- Of course, there are elements of violence, betrayal and death, but there's still an overwhelming message of love between 12 year old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) and her neighbor Leon (Jean Reno) a quiet hit man. They crossed paths after a brutally corrupt DEA Agent (Gary Oldman) killed her parents. She wanted Leon to teach her the tools of his trade so that she could get justice for her parents. He was reluctant to do so, but he somehow managed to develop a bond with her that was unbreakable even in death. Sometimes, the strongest form of payback is sacrificing yourself for the greater good. Leon knew that the only way Mathilda would be safe was if the DEA was dead, so when he was mortally wounded he rigged himself with enough explosives to kill them both. A brutal way to go, but it also showcased his devotion to a girl who was like a daughter to him.
Payback (1999)- Porter (Mel Gibson) was thief who was shot in the back by his best friend and his wife as they betrayed him for his share of the money in the latest big heist. He recovered from his wounds and plotted to get his share of the money as well as delivering their comeuppance. It was released when Gibson was still a box office draw and showcased him at his most on-screen charming. Even though his character was a criminal, viewers still wanted Porter to win because he was literally the lesser of a rogue's gallery of evil.
John Wick (2014)- It's a story about a widower and his new puppy living a quiet life, until some violent punks come into their lives and kill one of them. By the way, the widower was named John Wick (Keanu Reeves) a legendary and retired hitman who returned with a vengeance to punish the son of a crime family leader and those who took his beloved car as well. Sure, it sounded like a silly plot, but the fight scenes and the character fit Reeves perfectly. It was so successful in spawned a franchise with two more hit films to the saga. Okay, the last one had some over the top fights and poor pacing, but the franchise's essence still existed. It did well enough to spawn another one. Thank goodness.
Girls Join the Battle
Carrie (1976)- Adapted from a classic Stephen King novel of the same, the story followed a naïve high school girl named Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) who was bullied by her fellow high schoolers. It took one act of cruelty at her high school prom to push her over the edge that involved some carefully placed pig's blood. She started to develop some telekinetic powers that led her to getting her revenge against her tormentors and led to the blood extermination of her high school gym. She also managed to get her lead tormentor and her boyfriend in a lethal showdown with a car. The most memorable act of revenge was against her cruelly religious mother (Piper Laurie) that put a stop to her once and for all. This film has had multiple attempts at rivals, but Spacek's star making vehicle proved to be head and shoulders above the rest.
Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003)- The start of director Quentin Tarantino's epic quest for justice began with some bloody battles for The Bride (Uma Thurman) to get two of her former cohorts for destroying her wedding day and leaving her for dead. One of the most unforgettable and violent battles involved Thurman and her costar Lucy Liu. Some of the battle between the Bride and Liu's underlings had to be shot in black and white to lessen the amount of gore for the scene. The final battle with Liu and Thurman carrying their swords in their hands as they fought in the snow showcased a literal visual contrast between light and dark. The nature was so bright, but the battle was anything but. It also signified the continuing struggle in the Bride's quest to get to Bill.
Kill Bill Vol 2 (2004)- Where the first film was the bloody introduction, the second one was more of the substance and heart of the Bride and Bill's complicated relationship. The final battle for the Bride had her reach Bill's (David Carradine) front door and brought in their young daughter. The scenes were simple, touching and final as she dispatched Bill in a much subtler method than the rest of Thurman's on-screen kills. She had a strong and dynamic rapport with Carradine's Bill that was both fatherly and romantic at the same time. Complicated indeed and pure Tarantino in the end.
Love Affairs Cut Short
Revenge (1990)- An epic love triangle blossomed between regular guy Kevin Costner and rich girl Madeleine Stowe, who happened to be married to tycoon/his best friend Anthony Quinn. Costner's character worked overtime to not succumb to Stowe's appeal, but it proved hard to resist in the end. What they didn't expect was his reaction to their joint betrayal. He was a ruthless man who didn't like when something, or someone, who belonged to him was stolen from his grasp. Quinn's onscreen anger and ruthlessness was on full display. His version of vengeance was swift when he attempted to destroy Costner to the point where he thought he had won. Quinn's character just didn't make sure that he was fully down for the count. It's a shame, because his former friend was now literally, and metaphorically, gunning for him. He'll definitely make sure that he wins for his version of payback.
Darkman (1990)- It's about a Scientist Peyton Wilder (Liam Neeson) who attacked by some thugs who worked for a local crime boss. He was left physically and mentally disfigured. He only managed to save his own life through an emergency procedure. He managed to return to his work and with a renewed vigor to destroy the criminals who tried to kill him. He watched his devoted girlfriend (Frances McDormand) from afar as he systematically went after all of the criminals who tried to destroy him. Sure, his motives came from a dark place, but as the movie progressed it got to be bigger than him. With that in mind, he was worked to become a different type of hero, even though the sequels were less than stellar.
The Crow (1994)- Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) and his girlfriend are killed by some ruthless thugs. Instead of just being a forgotten tragedy, Draven is given a chance to exact his revenge for their deaths. The universe allowed him a chance to come back from the death as the mythical Crow. As this supernatural creature, he was allowed to teach their villains a lesson as they each died some memorable deaths. Sadly, this film is more memorable for the tragedy of an on-set accident that ended up killing its star Brandon Lee. Sure, the film was an unforgettable one, but it also showcased the potential that Lee could've had as a movie star if this tragedy never occurred. It also boasted a listen worth soundtrack full of 90s musicians at their best.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, because no one can handle the heat coming off of it. When tempers flared, it often transpired into rash decisions that always had a body count attached to it. Like the latter Rambo films, bullets and bodies usually flew hand in hand. Most tales of heroism often had a dash of betrayal and a dash of revenge mixed in to make things interesting. Look at Mad Max, Mel Gibson's character experienced devastating loss and is transformed into a one man killing machine as he went after the bad guys who killed his family. The follow-up films showed how Max was transformed from a family man into a man who literally became an island so to speak. He had no one to connect with and was forced to have a series of quests in each film to give him some form of humanity. 2007's Death Sentence followed one man's (Kevin Bacon) quest to right wrongs after one family tragedy. Like most acts of revenge, there were some consequences with another tragedy that hit his family.
In the end, revenge doesn't have to be elaborate in any way. It can be the simple of defiance by not allowing someone to have power over you. Not about overlooking a betrayal, but it's about rising above from someone else's mistake and poor judgment. Not every action deserved a violent reaction. Sometimes rising above someone else's pettiness can be just as important as giving them their just deserts. Revenge was all about the execution and planning; not necessarily execution someone. Real life isn't like the movies where prison sentences are over in two hours or less. Stick with the higher road, no matter how much you want to fight back.