The sour taste Eli Roth’s new “Death Wish” left in my mouth has me scouring the genre picture lists on Netflix, looking for a suitable palette cleanser.
Vengeance thrillers are a B-movie staple, C or D movie when they don’t execute the genre tropes well. But even when they do, it’s rare that you run across one that manages much in the line of surprise.
So consider “Acts of Vengeance,” an Antonio Banderas thriller that sets up a nice counter argument to the gory gun-crazy/bored Bruce Willis bomb that is “Death Wish.” It’s got a high-minded hook, a committed cast, righteous brawls and beatdowns. Yeah, it leans heavily on those aforementioned tropes, but that comes with the turf.
It’s about a criminal defense lawyer forced to consider what he does and how he lives his life when his wife and child are murdered. He wasn’t there, “working late” yet again. The cops seem under-motivated to find the killer or killers. Counselor Frank Valera (Banderas) is their enemy, after all.
But Frank has seen a vengeance picture or three, he knows the arc his story must follow. He gets a good telling-off at the funeral by his father in law (the great Robert Forster). “Some slick-tongued defense attorney like you” will get the killers off, even if they’re caught. “You’re all talk…spinning words…to exonerate the scum of the Earth.”
That’s the hook screenwriter Matt Venne came up with. A lawyer talks and talks and talks. “The average person speaks 20,000 words a day,” our anti-hero narrates. “Men? 17,000.”
Attorney Frank Valera? “Maybe 80,000.”
After he’s gone through his grief binge cliche, his flirtation with cage fighting (Hah!), his martial arts classes, Frank injects himself into an argument between a pimp and a 13 year old hooker. That’ll get you stabbed, make you tumble through a bookstore window.
And what can stop the bleeding like no other book on the shelves? “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius. Frank will become a Stoic. He will not speak until he has absorbed all the Roman lessons Marcus has to teach.
“Punish only he who has committed the crime.” “Action is the only truth.” “The best revenge is to be unlike your enemy.”
Frank eschews guns. All promising revenge tales do. He takes to driving the “car with character,” a cliche of thrillers, detective films and TV shows — a late model Mustang.
And he gets a bulletin board. Where else can he post the cliched news clippings, post-it note “leads” and suspects photos? Frank is going to investigate this case himself, now that he’s a badass.
Stoicism is a very clever trait to give a character. Men (and women) of few words are a staple of the genre, from Eastwood and Bronson to Neeson and Statham. If nothing else about “Acts of Vengeance” seems “inspired,” at least this does.
The not-talking thing is introduced right at the start, Frank silently stepping into a diner and director Isaac Florentine and his sound-designers letting us catch all the things you can hear when you’re not yapping, texting or muttering — snatches of conversations, sounds in the kitchen, suspicious noises down the street.
The story is told out of order, with Tarantino-esque chapters — “Part IV” is the first.
Frank’s narration lures us in.
“Do I look crazy to you?” Banderas purrs. That’s a great way to use a good actor you’ve managed to land for your B (if you’re lucky) movie. Let the sexiest voice in the movies play a role.
That “crazy” moment, “Part IV?” We’ll circle back around to that via Part I, Part II and Part III.
There’s an angelic nurse (Paz Vega) who saves a bleeding Frank on the street, and a smartly-shot scene in which Frank wordlessly lets her see his…bulletin board.
I’m bringing up these positives before the inevitable hammer falls. For all the promise the picture shows, it’s those trite tropes that drag it down to the level of most vengeance pictures.
Even a casual viewer is three steps of the filmmakers in solving this “mystery,” in guessing the next story point and action beat.
Karl Urban is the “one cop who cares,” the “Russian Mafia” is implicated (the safest villains in the movies), we get the obligatory “evidence cache” scene where the villain’s stash is revealed, removing all our doubt and help slower members of the audience catch up.
But the longer I do this film reviewing thing, the more respect I have for the action actors and actresses who never check out, never phone it in.
Stallone and Schwarzenegger let us see the fatigue. Willis cannot hide his boredom.
Cage? Banderas? Statham? Butler? Still engaging with the character, the situation, the physical requirements and the truth of the piece. Vega (“Sex and Lucia,” “Spanglish”) is in that Angela Basset/Glenn Close/Holly Hunter/Halle Berry mold — never letting on that the material or the role in beneath her.
“Acts of Vengeance” has great fights, solid performances and a smart story hook. Not a great movie, but as vengeance pictures go, an efficient one and a film that doesn’t grate on the viewer or humiliate its star and gore-obsessed director, unlike SOME movies of the genre one could name.
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Paz Vega, Karl Urban, Robert Forster
Running time: 1:26