If there are two things I love in this world, they would be:
- Action movies about retired and/or aging assassins going on rampages through criminal organizations because one or more of the organization’s members made the mistake of harming or offending them in some way.
- Pointless debates.
And so, this: Let’s discuss and declare a champion in this genre. There are a ton of options, really, but I’ve narrowed it down to three choices, because otherwise we’d be here forever and because this is my idea, whatever, leave me alone. Our options: Keanu Reeves, Liam Neeson, and Denzel Washington. All legends in the field, some for quantity, some for quality, some for both. Below, please find the case for each of them, followed by my chosen winner. If you disagree, feel free to retrieve your hidden supply of weapons and come for me. It’s the only fair way to settle things.
(Please do not do this.)
Away we go.
Revenge Movie: John Wick
Reason For Rampage: Theon Greyjoy from Game of Thrones kills his dog
Notable Scene: Keanu storms a fancy New York night club operated by the Russian mob and kills well over a dozen gangsters as techno music blares.
The first thing we need to note here is that John Wick has the best Reason for Revenge on this list , and maybe ever. Yes, there is more to it than just “Theon killed his dog.” There’s context there. The dog was a gift from his late wife, the last thing he had to remember her by, and a living, breathing creature that gave him a reason to get up every morning. But still. Even without the context, friggin’ Theon killing your dog is probably enough to justify a few dozen murders. I’m pretty sure it’s the law, actually. And even if it’s not, find me one jury in the land that would convict you. Case closed.
So John Wick has that going for it. It’s also the most artistic of the films on this list. The colors pop off the screen, especially the bright red shirts the Russian mobsters wear, which is quite cool and eye-catching, but also a terrible decision when a wronged super-assassin is hunting you and all your friends. The action scenes are less brute force than they are ballet with firearms, too. That’s kind of cool. Watch the first big shootout again, the one where the mobsters come to his house after they realize what they did and who they did it to. Keanu is out here murdering bad guys in a suit and moving like a rhythmic gymnast. It’s almost beautiful. And that’s before we get to the night club scene I mentioned earlier. That’s one of the best action scenes ever, in any movie, full-stop. John Wick is a good movie. That’s what I’m getting at.
Also, no one steal “ballet with firearms” from me. With the right investors, I can make that stage production work.
Revenge Movie: Taken
Reason For Rampage: Eastern European thugs kidnap his daughter to force her into prostitution.
Notable Scene: Neeson’s character enters a safe house to look for his daughter and ends up killing every Albanian gangster inside, except for one, whom he tortures for information. And then kills.
Revenge movies have been a thing as long as movies have been a thing, and revenge books were a thing before that. It’s not fair to give Liam Neeson and Taken too much credit for what it did for the genre. Hell, Gladiator is basically a revenge movie, and that won an Oscar only eight years earlier. But Taken did give things a boost, spawning sequels, and grabbing hold of a little pop culture moment in the sun. Even if it gave us nothing else, it gave us an all-time great movie speech (“I have a very particular set of skills”) and a Top 10 Key & Peele sketch. There are worse legacies.
It did give us more than that, though. Liam Neeson has the best revenge movie voice of our three contestants, and it’s not particularly close (Liam > Denzel > Keanu). And coming into the franchise at a slightly advanced age lended even more gravitas to the whole affair, like the difference between your brother being mad at you and your dad being mad at you. Also, your dad is a trained killer. And looks like Liam Neeson. I think that will help my analogy.
Straight Tooken, son.
Revenge Movie: Man on Fire
Reason For Rampage: A young girl he is close to finds herself in danger from a group of violent criminals.
Notable Scene: Denzel’s character traps a man in the driver’s seat of a car and tortures him in excruciating fashion to get information.
The thing about Denzel Washington, Revenge Movie Star, is that I wrote those little descriptions up there about Man on Fire, but they also apply to The Equalizer, a different revenge movie he made a full decade later. It’s kind of incredible, really. In Man on Fire, the girl he saves is the daughter of a wealthy family who hired him as a bodyguard. In The Equalizer, it’s a teenage hooker with a heart of gold whose freedom he tries to guarantee. In Man on Fire, the car scene involves him duct taping a bad guy to the steering wheel and chopping off fingers to get information. In The Equalizer, it involves him handcuffing a bad guy to the steering wheel and pumping his car full of its own exhaust.
Perhaps you see all that and think Denzel should be penalized for kind of making the same movie twice. Fine. That’s your prerogative, even if the two movies are much more different than I’m giving them credit for. (I presented it like that for goofs. I stand by all of my goof-based decisions.) But you could also look at that and interpret it to mean Denzel is a legend of the genre. I mean, the dude has saved both Dakota Fanning and Chloe Grace Moretz from violent criminals. I wish we could go back 10 years before Man on Fire — right around 1994 — and make a movie where he saves an 8-year-old Olsen twin, just to give him an unprecedented Three Decade Blonde Girl Saving trifecta.
(Yes, technically Chloe Grace Moretz’s hair is mostly black and red in The Equalizer. You get my point. I said leave me alone.)
And if we’re being honest here, why would you ever not want to see Denzel Washington go on an extended rampage and deliver full-on Denzel speeches to criminals he’s about to kill? You really have something better to do with your Saturday? I bet you don’t.
Keanu Reeves. All due respect to Liam and Denzel, but it’s got to be Keanu. He starred in a movie where he does the things in this GIF because his dog died. This wasn’t a fair competition from the start.