What Is It About Those Wonderful Revenge Movies?

For a philosophy class, I once wrote a paper on the allure of "revenge movies." My premise was that our love of these movies springs from the same innate capacity that allows us to believe in the concept of Hell: The belief that people who commit bad deeds deserve to be punished. Not only deserve to be punished, but deserve to have their skin roasted for eternity. Not just for a thousand years, mind you (which, theologically, would be a mere slap on the wrist), but forever.

Consider: If mankind didn't believe that being a "morally good" person truly mattered, the concept of Hell never would have made the cut. It would never have taken root. Indeed, the concept would have been considered icky and perverse. If mankind didn't believe, on some deep, dark, primordial level, that being a "bad" person rendered you worthy of contempt, we would have laughed off the very notion of Hell.

But we didn't laugh it off. Instead, we embraced it. The notion of being consigned to eternal damnation for our sins scared the bejeezus out of us. Admittedly, while most people in the Western world no longer believe in a fire and brimstone version of it, the overwhelming majority of us still rejoice in seeing bad people get punished.

Some will call this punishment "justice"; others are more comfortable using the 24-carat term "retribution." In any event, I prefer to call it what it is: Revenge. Hence, the universal popularity of revenge films. The following are my four all-time favorite revenge movies. They are listed in no particular order. As for that philosophy paper, I received a grade of C+. Call it "justice." I had no business being in college.

1. NEVADA SMITH (1966). Steve McQueen plays a half-breed Indian kid whose parents are not only murdered by three horrible desperados, they are deliberately butchered and mutilated. These evil men (Arthur Kennedy, Martin Landau and Karl Malden) actually skin his mother alive. This is how the movie opens. And being the exquisitely gratifying revenge film it is, we already know how it's going to end. Although the 36-year old McQueen plays the part of a very young man, he's terrific in the role. As is Brian Keith, who plays his mentor.

2. DEATH WISH (1974). This might well be the gold standard of revenge films. It has everything: New York City during its high-crime glory years, criminal gargoyles roaming the streets preying on the innocent and cuddly, and a reluctant and noble hero. Charles Bronson (who better??!) plays an architect whose wife and daughter are viciously beaten and raped. The wife dies, the daughter, reduced to a vegetative state, is committed to a mental institution, and Bronson evolves into a deadly efficient vigilante, going around ridding NYC of every bad guy who dares approach him. A great movie.

3. THE BRAVE ONE (2007). Yet another film featuring a reluctant hero, and this time it's a woman, the wonderful Jodie Foster, who plays a thoughtful, low-intensity intellectual talk radio host. True to the formula, she and her boyfriend are attacked by bad guys in -- where else? -- Central Park. She is severely beaten (they beat the crap out of her), and the boyfriend is killed. Afraid to emerge from her apartment, she avoids the world for a number of weeks before deciding to venture out and buy an unlicensed gun for her own protection. This purchase turns out to be a life-changer, as she morphs into a stupendously righteous, self-confident and heroic killing machine. We love her! Terrence Howard plays the ever so cool NYC cop and Greek chorus. Don't miss this one.

4. JOHN WICK (2014). This is the only movie in the group that features a non-amateur as the revenge-taker. And, oh baby, what a "non-amateur" he is. Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, an ex-intel agent of the highest and most accomplished order, a veritable one-man wrecking crew, universally regarded as being so dangerous and efficient, the vile people whom he is chasing have no choice but to remain in a scared-shitless state of terror until he kills them all. Reeves has never been better. A resounding thumbs-up.

David Macaray is a playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition). He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com