Men on Fire 101: The Revenge Thrillers That Shaped ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ and ‘The Equalizer’
Look at the leaves changing colors, smell the crisp autumn air: It’s revenge season. This week, Liam Neeson’s latest example of his very particular set of skills hits theaters with A Walk Among the Tombstones. Next week, Denzel Washington has The Equalizer. A few weeks ago, we had Pierce Brosnan’s Eastern bloc gunfight movie, The November Man. In October, Keanu Reeves kills in the name of his dead dog in John Wick.
This is where you find former Oscar winners wearing leather jackets. The actors’ age is always addressed, either in the text as a “former assassin/CIA agent” or implied through physical limitations. These are late-middle-age action films — that’s a big part of the appeal. Slower than your average action movie, and a lot meaner.
Since 2008, Liam Neeson has shifted from respectable dramas to movies in which he kills a lot of people. As a career path, he’s following Charles Bronson, but it seems to be an emotional reaction for Neeson rather than a cash-in. The anger is so close to the surface in his performances. And he has a lot to be angry about. Tombstones is the sixth1 of these films he’s released. It’s a list that includes two Taken films in Luc Besson’s euro-bloodbath grindhouse, Unknown, The Next Three Days, and Non-Stop with Jaume Collet-Serra (the auteur who gave the world Orphan). He has a new collaboration with both Besson and Collet-Serra coming in 2015. Some of these are really exciting and visceral action films. Some feel like Death Wish 7.
Denzel Washington hasn’t franchised revenge movies the way Neeson has, but the old-dude action movie is definitely a tool in his toolbox.
Man on Fire, the best of Washington’s five-film collaboration with the late Tony Scott, proved that he was the perfect avatar for vengeance. Like Henry Fonda before him, the forthright quality Washington has can become menace. It can also alleviate disbelief in the audience. He is a very plausible angel of death. You don’t have to suspend disbelief to imagine him filling a man’s ass with plastic explosives.
This micro-genre has its roots dating back to the 1970s, as do Neeson and Washington. Denzel’s first small role came as a stickup kid in Death Wish. Neeson makes early appearances in Excalibur and Krull, each a post–Star Wars career misstep by guy-movie godfathers John Boorman and Peter Yates, respectively. He also has a small role in Dirty Harry 5: The Search for Curly’s Gold. Even Keanu started off as the kid in Acts of Vengeance, against Bronson. Here’s a primer on the world of the ’70s revenge thriller. In it, you’ll find the building blocks for Tombstones, The Equalizer, and so many movies like them.
Point Blank and John Boorman
In 1967, Lee Marvin handpicked Boorman out of the relative obscurity of BBC documentaries and Hard Day’s Night knock-offs starring the Dave Clarke 5 to direct Point Blank.
An adaptation of Richard Stark’s The Hunter, Boorman started off with a regular action script and methodically took it apart, using techniques from Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni.
Lee Marvin is Walker (Parker in the books). After a heist, Walker is double-crossed and left for dead by his best friend and girlfriend. He comes back for his money.
Instead of overstylizing weak material, Boorman’s approach elevates the emotional stakes of every scene. A stark parallel is drawn between the ferocious violence Marvin can deal out and the coldness of his demeanor. There is very little choreography to this violence, and an iconic scene in a nightclub, in which Walker beats three men to death, is still a little too brutal to comfortably enjoy.
Boorman doesn’t flinch from everything macho action movies have since tried to avoid: homoerotic male relationships, violence as the tool of the emotionally stunted, misogyny, money as empty talisman. Point Blank is a strong contender for the best movie of the ’60s, and it set the standard for smart takes on genre material ever since.
Peter Yates, Mitchum, and McQueen
Similar to Boorman, Peter Yates had directed the no-nonsense, ultrarealistic English heist film Robbery in ’67, bringing him to Steve McQueen’s attention, when the The Great Escape star was looking for someone to helm Bullitt. Mostly known for its fantastic car-chase sequences, Bullitt is a quietly perfect character study. Yates emphasized character even more in his ’70s old-tough-guy film, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Robert Mitchum is the titular star, a middle-aged father and husband trying to leverage a fed into helping him with an out-of-state hijacking charge by ratting on some bank robbers he’s been buying guns for. The proceedings are small-time and slow, with wall-to-wall character actors all on edge about who they can trust and in what context. You can feel the director of Bullit (and heist romp The Hot Rock) just peeling back everything cinematic and cool. Getting old, getting pushed out, fucking over friends to keep skating for a little while — this is what Yates is intent on showing. Mitchum’s battered ex-noir superstar status is treated the way Michael Clayton treats Clooney’s waning glamour.
Mike Hodges has the same career arc as Boorman and Yates, only with much less output. He went from gritty revenge classic to gaudy, early-’80s science fiction/fantasy effects movie. And he made close to the platonic ideal of each, with Get Carter (1971) and Flash Gordon (1980). The former is, next to Point Blank, the template for all great modern revenge films.
Michael Caine’s brother dies, so Caine goes up north, back home, to find out what happened. Of course, he finds out by killing a lot of people — gangsters, their girlfriends, civilians he talks to. Carter is Caine at his most brusque — clipped pleasantries and physical domination. He breaks only a few times in the film, barking through his teeth, as if he’s choking back bile.
Hodges never wastes time making Carter any more or less sympathetic than he actually is. There is some timeless nastiness: Carter stabs a guy who didn’t help his brother, throws a guy off a parking garage roof, throws a girl in a car trunk to eventually drown. Caine isn’t particularly old in Carter, but with a past full of bad shit and guilt, he doesn’t seem very young, either. Hodges would go back to this same type of film many times, with the IRA thriller A Prayer for the Dying (with a small role for Liam Neeson) and essentially re-staging Get Carter with Clive Owen in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.
John Flynn’s Thunder
John Flynn’s 1973 Richard Stark adaptation, The Outfit, plays like a deglamorized remake of Point Blank. If that’s even possible. Flynn focuses on how Robert Duvall’s Eddie character (a stand-in for Parker/Walker) uses precision to mask his insecurities. In fact, the whole film seems to be an examination of male anxiety.
Flynn’s follow-up revenge film was Rolling Thunder. You might have seen the poster. You might know about it from the many times Quentin Tarantino has referenced it.
On paper, this is a very post-Rambo, post–The Deer Hunter kind of movie: POW comes home from Vietnam, loses his family to thugs, goes on a rampage using his military training.
In execution, it’s a different animal. Unlike the revenge films of the ’80s, Flynn doesn’t make the violence particularly appealing or cool. Revenge isn’t sexy, it’s a point of no return. The same can be said of all the films we’re talking about. Violence may be the only place for these characters to go, but it’s never made identifiable. These movies will feel a little alien to anyone in a post–Die Hard world, but without the need to appeal, they get to find different places for the violence to go.
Charles Rane as played by William Devane is a little distant, even when he shouldn’t be. When the bad men show up to torture him for a prize he was awarded on television ($2,000 in silver dollars, which wasn’t a lot even then), they hold his hand above a fire à la G. Gordon Liddy. He flashes back to being tortured in the POW camp. When they put his arm in a garbage disposal, he doesn’t scream.
The script — written by Paul Schrader — toys with the sadomasochistic undertones in Rane but never dives into them. It’s much more disconcerting that way.
Rane tells the police he doesn’t remember anything, but when he gets out he goes to work trying to find and kill the men. He’s got a hook for a hand; doesn’t really change much about him. This is a slow burn of a revenge movie, closer to Audition than Taken. While there are bursts of violence, the grossly physical kind, everything is kept at a simmer for the bulk of the run time.
Sam Peckinpah and The Killer Elite
Sam Peckinpah made a career out of movies about violence. He made Westerns, a home-invasion classic, and films about assassins, heists, and war. Each of these movies examined the savagery men were capable of, the way that the world, in a way, needs these men, and how it moves past them, leaving them to deal with the fallout. The violence in Peckinpah movies is cathartic and inevitable, but it’s never a good thing.
He made only one modern-day revenge film, the late-period The Killer Elite, and it speaks to Peckinpah’s conflict of enjoying violence but understanding its impact. James Caan and Robert Duvall are “independent intelligence agents” (mercenaries), and seemingly best friends. Duvall double-crosses Caan on an operation, shooting him in the arm and knee. Doctors tell Caan he’ll never work again. He gets back on his feet and pulls his team together.
At one point, Caan fights some ninjas with his cane. Bo Hopkins charms his way through a performance as a trigger-happy psychopath, and Duvall brings a lot of visible guilt and earnest friendship to what would be in any other movie a flat villain role. Peckinpah uses the idea of codes of honor to highlight how these violent men have zero agency in their own lives.
The Killer Elite is Peckinpah’s “I’m done with violence” movie. It ended up being one of his most influential on artists (Tarantino, John Woo, Michael Cimino, Garth Ennis comics, Metal Gear Solid video games) who relish incendiary violence rather than focus on its human cost.
Taken-style movies have one go-to comparison point: Michael Winner’s Death Wish. Charles Bronson plays Paul Kersey, an architect whose family is sexually assaulted in a home invasion (Jeff Goldblum plays a rapist and dresses like Jughead). His wife is killed and his adult daughter winds up in a coma.
Bronson plays the early scenes, unbelievably, as a “bleeding-heart liberal” and pacifist. On a business trip to Arizona, he goes to a firing range and is revealed to be an expert shot. He returns to the city, armed, and starts going out at night and shooting black teenage muggers in the back.
While Taken is no less racially gross, it’s still uncomfortable as hell to watch Death Wish in 2014. That being said, it’s the perfect version of this kind of Charles Bronson/vigilante movie. Kersey is a kind of lip-service character, but he is a three-dimensional person. In later Death Wish films (as well as Bronson’s films with J. Lee Thompson, which are essentially the same thing), Bronson just puts on a leather jacket and kills everyone. Like with any franchise, the first thing to go is character.
Follow the Money
Scott Frank, the director of A Walk Among the Tombstones (who also directed The Lookout, as well as writing Out of Sight and Marley & Me), spoke about how he “wanted to make something akin to the Don Siegel or Alan Pakula films from the 1970s that I loved so much. So much of what we make now as an industry are action movies, not thrillers.”
Pakula is an interesting director to single out. He is not associated with old men seeking revenge, but rather with political thrillers. Pakula’s paranoid trilogy of films in the ’70s are deeply respected (though they perhaps are better entertainment than art), held up as an example of the kind of artistry a filmmaker could have in the ’70s mainstream.
All the President’s Men is what happens when every member of a cast and crew is firing on all cylinders. Klute is pure ’70s: a portrait of Jane Fonda as a neurotic prostitute attempting to get out of the game. A reticent Donald Sutherland goes against type, holding back everything. Pakula borrows heavily from Italian slasher maestro Dario Argento.
Of the three, The Parallax View is the most like a Liam Neeson movie. It has a reputation as a Conversation-style political thriller, and it is that. But Pakula isn’t above trashing up his own film, going to Road House territory if he needs to. It’s easy to forget, because of the climate of films now, that these are crowd-pleasing movies, in addition to being smart ones.
The other director Frank singles out is Don Siegel. In terms of revenge thrillers, and macho action movies of any stripe, it is impossible to ignore Siegel. He had been directing for 20 years before he made The Killers in 1964, with Lee Marvin, Ronald Reagan, and John Cassavetes. The film made him the go-to auteur of men with guns.
Siegel directed Bronson in the 1977 spy film Telefon. It communicates every theme Siegel was interested in exploring throughout the decade: men with a nasty streak attempting to do the right thing as the world manages to betray their already lowered expectations.
Charley Varrick is another Siegel effort. Walter Matthau plays the titular character. He robs a mob bank, bringing hell down on his head. The rest of the film is Varrick trying to make sure he’s in the clear, chronicling the extremes he’s willing to go to stay that way.
In much the same way that Winner worked with Bronson to develop an avenging-angel archetype, Siegel worked with Clint Eastwood to create his iconic ’70s persona. They made five films together, starting with Coogan’s Bluff, which is the kind of fish-out-of-water movie that Adam Sandler makes now, only with Clint Eastwood as an Arizona sheriff in New York City.
Eastwood liked working with Siegel and asked for him to direct Dirty Harry. Like Death Wish, it’s a bit of a right-wing, middle-aged white guy fantasy. Unlike Death Wish, it’s a great movie. Harry Callahan would morph into an Archie Bunker figure in later films, but at the start, he’s a cop running up against changes in the law he doesn’t understand.
Harry’s age is never discussed, but his facility for violence itself is shown to be out of step with the world. Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio character sets the standard for conniving, seemingly omnipresent villains without losing his vulnerability. Dirty Harry influenced revenge movies, old-man action, and serial killer films for years to come (Eastwood was still making them as recently as Gran Torino). You can see it in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Between Dirty Harry and Death Wish, every actor who could hold a gun, and believably threaten someone, suddenly had a place to go when he wanted to be an action star.