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The avengers

Ready or not (and many in the country seem to be ready), several new films are about violent retribution.

April 05, 2004|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

It's payback time.

For each and every weekend this month, that's the mantra for a variety of movie characters determined to bring justice to an unjust world. Americans might feel toothless in their real lives, but violent film heroes in "Walking Tall," "The Punisher," "Kill Bill Vol. 2," "Man on Fire" and "The Alamo" feel no such powerlessness. Rather than get mad, they get even, and after just two hours of effort, they can truthfully proclaim, "Mission accomplished."

As did Charles Bronson's "Death Wish" vigilante 30 years ago, most of these crusaders are striking back to avenge the deaths of their own families and loved ones, usually without law enforcement's help. Although the plots tend to be farfetched, at least one is grounded in reality: Gen. Sam Houston's famous "Remember the Alamo!" call to arms before routing the Mexican army.

Though the saturation scheduling is largely a matter of happenstance, the makers of these movies are betting today's audiences are hungry for some vengeful storytelling.

"Are we in a block of time where vigilante movies would work better? Yes, I do believe that," says Jonathan Hensleigh, who wrote and directed "The Punisher." "The American zeitgeist, in terms of its passion and aggression, does seem to ebb and flow. And we live now in an era of heightened passion and aggression."

At a time when everyday citizens struggle with the predicaments of unemployment, health insurance, terrorism and war, these films offer one-stop-shopping wish fulfillment. "People are craving simple answers for very complex issues," says Lawrence Bender, the producer of "Kill Bill Vol. 2."

But there are so many revenge films that moviegoer interest may be stretched to the breaking point:

The first entry, last Friday's "Walking Tall," opened to an estimated $15.3 million, good enough for second place on the box office charts. Loosely adapted from the 1973 hit about a real Tennessee sheriff, the remake stars the Rock as a retired soldier hunting down a rapacious casino owner (Neal McDonough) and saving his hometown from drugs and corruption.

This Friday, "The Alamo" retraces the legendary 1836 battle over the Texas garrison. While most of the film focuses on the circumstances of the conflict and the personalities of those defending the historic site, the story's third act reenacts Houston's less-famous evisceration of the Mexican army in the battle of San Jacinto.

On April 16, writer-director Quentin Tarantino returns with "Kill Bill Vol. 2," the conclusion of Beatrix Kiddo's (Uma Thurman) sword-swinging revenge plot against the Deadly Vipers, an assassination squad that shot up her wedding rehearsal.

That same day, Thomas Jane opens as "The Punisher." Adapted from a comic book, the film tracks ex-FBI agent Frank Castle, whose parents, wife and child is targeted by a crime boss (John Travolta) trying to get even for his own son's death.

On April 23, Denzel Washington plays John Creasy in "Man on Fire," a mercenary hired to guard a couple's daughter in Mexico. When the girl is abducted, Creasy stockpiles every weapon imaginable and sets out after all those responsible.

The plots are as old as "The Iliad" and "Othello." At the start of "Kill Bill Vol. 1," Tarantino quotes the proverb "Revenge is a dish best served cold," which dates back centuries. Revenge and vigilantism tales also have been a Hollywood staple for decades, shaping narratives in everything from "The Godfather" to "Star Wars."

But revenge scenarios have become nearly as common as sequels, and several such stories -- including "21 Grams" and the Oscar-winning "Mystic River" -- were among last year's most acclaimed releases.

"It's a complicated world, and there is some living out of a fantasy by seeing injustices that the police and government don't take care of handled by a citizen," says Gary Foster, who produced last year's vigilante hit "Daredevil."

"If you feel you are helpless, you can go and watch a character who acts and does things that people may or may not wish they could do themselves," says screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who adapted "Man on Fire" and "Mystic River."

Although it might be convenient to assume so, the barrage of revenge movies isn't Hollywood's response to Sept. 11. Most of the films originally were conceived years before the attacks: "Kill Bill" dates to 1994, and "The Punisher" has been in the works since 1999. None of the villains in any of the films is of Middle Eastern descent either: In both "Walking Tall" and "Man on Fire," it's actually greed and the police who are to blame. .

Furthermore, the one-after-another scheduling confluence is largely a matter of chance. "The Alamo" was once set to open last Christmas, "Kill Bill" originally was going to be a single film in 2003 and Lions Gate Films considered half a dozen release dates for "The Punisher" before settling on a spring premiere.

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