Vengeance is ours, saith Hollywood. This message came through particularly loud and clear during a single week in April, in which the studios released three films about grim, determined vigilantes who seek brutal revenge against their enemies. While those who take the law into their own hands are usually anything but heroic in real life, the protagonists in Kill Bill, The Punisher, and Man on Fire are all presented in more or less sympathetic terms. All of their violent vendettas are portrayed as at least somewhat justified, and there even seems to be a hint of divine sanction hanging over their efforts. All three of them have lost a child, and sometimes other friends and family too, and all three of them have been shot and left for dead by the villains who deprived them of their loved ones. Thus, when all three of them recuperate and set out on their quests for vengeance, it is as though they have risen from the dead to set wrongs right.
The implicit divine approval is made explicit in Kill Bill, the two-part Quentin Tarantino movie which freely mixes the conventions of Eastern and Western revenge flicks. The story follows a female assassin, known at first only as The Bride (Uma Thurman), who is shot in the head by Bill (David Carradine), her former boss and lover, and then spends the next four years in a coma. In Vol. 1, released last year, she awakes, beats a hospital employee who has been raping her and pimping her body out to other men, then wills her paralyzed legs back to life. As The Bride sets off on a globe-trotting mission to kill the five former colleagues who killed her friends and caused her to lose the baby she was carrying, she marvels that she survived Bill’s attack; in a voice-over, she declares: “When fortune smiles on something as violent and ugly as revenge, it seems proof like no other that not only does God exist — you’re doing his will.”
As always with Tarantino, it is difficult to tell where hip posturing ends and sincerity begins. The one thing that does come through in his films is his unabashed love for both the artistic ambitions and the pulpy excesses of earlier films, and Kill Bill, divided neatly into ten chapters spread out over two films, is essentially a celebration of movie genres, from Westerns and gangster movies to kung fu flicks and Japanese animation. An opening title card even alludes to Star Trek, citing an “old Klingon proverb” to the effect that “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” But there is more to Kill Bill than a mere exercise in style. Tarantino is also concerned with the moral codes by which even criminals try to live, and with the possibility that even sinners as bad as these can find grace.
In a flashback in Vol. 2, we learn that The Bride tried to abandon her life of crime when she learned she was pregnant — and that her first act upon making this discovery was to spare the life of another female assassin who happened to invade her hotel room at that exact moment. The tense, amusing stand-off between these two hit-women recalls an episode in Tarantino’s earlier film, Pulp Fiction (1994), in which two hit-men are completely untouched by a virtually point-blank hail of bullets; one calls their survival a “miracle” and gives up his criminal ways, while the other sees nothing but a lucky accident and continues to work for their boss — and is killed on the job shortly thereafter. In that case, we may assume the hit-man who quit was allowed to go, but Bill is not so generous to The Bride; several months after she leaves him, he tracks her down, finds that she is about to marry another man, and kills the wedding party — and almost succeeds in killing her, too. So now, because The Bride’s efforts to embrace the good have been thwarted, she goes the other way, embracing evil in order to destroy it, using her lethal talents to kill her former colleagues.
Yet even amid all the cartoonish, blood-soaked mayhem, there remains the possibility that The Bride might find some sort of grace. When she finally faces Bill, she learns to her shock and amazement that their daughter is alive — and that Bill has been raising the child all this time. Suddenly The Bride’s mission is one of protection, of preserving whatever innocence her daughter has retained despite being left in the care of an active professional killer. When the moment to kill Bill finally arrives, it is played as tragedy more than triumph; grace was a possibility for Bill, too, but he turned it down. The film ends with The Bride curled on a motel bathroom floor, crying, smiling, and saying a prayer of thanks before she and her daughter hit the road, hopefully leaving the cycle of violence far, far behind them.
There is nothing so hopeful in The Punisher, an adaptation of the Marvel comic, co-written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh. The film hints strongly that there is no divine element in the world, just chance and our own conflicting efforts to impose order through sheer brute force. Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is a retired cop whose last assignment ends in the unintended death of the son of an arch-criminal named Howard Saint (John Travolta). At his wife’s bidding, Saint sends a team of hit-men to wipe out Castle and all his relatives at their family reunion in the Caribbean.
Shortly before the hit-men show up, Castle’s wife tells him, “You and I, we’re not lucky — we are blessed.” But that blessing is soon undone, as she, their son, and the rest of their extended clan are killed in cold blood. Castle himself is shot in the chest by another of Saint’s sons, and he is left to die on a pier set to explode. But somehow, he survives, and is nursed back to health by a local healer who wears a cross around his neck. “Go with God,” the healer says when Castle is well enough to return home, but Castle grimly replies, “God’s gonna sit this one out.” Returning to America and finding that his former colleagues have done nothing to punish Saint, Castle sets a plan in motion to destroy Saint’s empire as well as his family. At times, Castle dispatches his victims with a barbaric vindictiveness that could have come straight out of pagan myth.1
But the worst tendencies of the revenge genre truly reach their apotheosis in Man on Fire, directed with annoying hyperactivity by Tony Scott from a script by Brian Helgeland (whose last film, oddly enough, was the anti-revenge drama Mystic River). Man on Fire is the story of John Creasy (Denzel Washington), a suicidal, alcoholic former CIA assassin hired to be the bodyguard for a young girl named Pita (Dakota Fanning) in Mexico City, depicted here as the kidnapping capital of the world. In this film, life is a series of transactions: everything from money to sex is traded as a reward for favors rendered or as a bid for favors yet to come, and human life itself is the ultimate bargaining chip. In the midst of all this mutual exploitation, Pita sounds the one crystal-clear note of grace by offering Creasy her unconditional love — and although he resists her efforts to befriend him at first, he eventually gives in, and in doing so becomes a better father figure to her than her own dad. The fact that Creasy’s earlier attempt to kill himself failed in a seemingly miraculous fashion, when the bullet in his gun did not discharge as it should, also gives him a reason to live again. So he puts down his bottle and picks up his Bible.
But then Pita is kidnapped and, after a ransom deal goes bad, presumed dead. Creasy, wounded during the abduction, emerges from his hospitalization to declare war on the criminals and corrupt police officers responsible for Pita’s death. One by one, he works his way up the chain of command, slicing off a man’s fingers in order to make him talk, packing a handful of explosives up another man’s rectum, and burning down an entire nightclub, apparently to the amusement of its patrons. All the while, Creasy’s vendetta is given a religious tinge, through the film’s repeated references to the Scriptures and St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes whose pendant Pita gave to Creasy. Standing before a statue of the Madonna, Creasy even encourages Pita’s father, who turns out to have been partly responsible for her abduction, to commit suicide with the “miracle bullet” that spared Creasy’s own life. When one person points out that the Church teaches us to forgive our enemies, Creasy replies, “Forgiveness is between them and God — it’s my job to arrange the meeting.”
Kill Bill, at least, lets us in on the fact that it’s only a movie — at one point, The Bride even winks at the camera — and its characters do recognize their common fallenness; at times, they even hope for, and point toward, a life beyond revenge. But the other films take themselves too seriously; at one point, Creasy quotes the same proverb that Tarantino attributes to the Klingons, but where Tarantino cites it with a nudge and a wink, Creasy is all business. More than ever, what we need right now are films that will encourage us to love, not hate, our enemies.
Peter Chattaway lives in Canada and writes about movies.
1. Compare the scene in The Punisher where Castle has Saint dragged to his death behind a car with the scene in Homer’s Iliad — also depicted in the recent blockbuster Troy — in which Achilles drags Hector’s body behind his chariot. But where Achilles’ action is seen as a sign of his inhuman arrogance, Castle’s action is the heroic climax to the film.