Revenge movies are something of an indulgent genre in film. There’s something extremely satisfying in witnessing a protagonist who has been wronged get the justice they seek and deserve. Maybe because revenge is a concept that feels very instinctual and universal but not always something we can act on, so we accept the trail of bodies protagonists like John Wick leave behind. In fact, we celebrate every violent death of a nameless bad guy until the main character can get to the one that caused them pain in the first place—at least in revenge movies.
With the upcoming release of John Wick: Chapter 4 this March, we thought now would be the perfect time to binge-watch revenge movies that can satisfy anyone’s taste for sweet, sweet vengeance.
John Wick (2014)
Like many revenge movies, John Wick centers around a character’s quest to avenge the murder of a loved one. Keanu Reaves plays the titular role, a retired hitman of mythical proportions that he’s been dubbed by Russian mobsters as the Baba Yaga.
Iosef, the son of the city’s criminal underworld, invades John Wick’s home to steal his car and murder his puppy. The car didn’t matter to John as much as his pet did, as it was a gift from his recently deceased wife, the last connection he had to her.
Unlike the revenge movie Taken, John Wick doesn’t have anyone to rescue. But not having recovered from the loss of his wife, he comes out of retirement to avenge the death of his puppy. Unfortunately for the Russian mob, the Baba Yaga—their version of the Boogeyman—is out for their blood.
The title may be a little too on the nose but Revenge is a lot more nuanced than it appears. The French film is set in the desert where Jennifer (Matilda Lutz) is having a tryst with a married man named Richard. Their getaway is interrupted by two of Richard’s hunting friends, who are immediately taken to Jennifer. One of the men rapes Jennifer and when she threatens to tell Richard’s wife—after he tries to pay her off to forget about her assault—he attacks and leaves her in the desert to die.
Revenge is not for the squeamish. Much like other revenge movies, there’s a lot of violence and bloodshed, mostly from the protagonist herself. Unlike John Wick, she’s just a woman without survival or fighting skills. It’s a difficult movie to sit through—from her rape to the grisly attacks she endured—which makes the payoff even sweeter.
Ocean’s Eight (2018)
Not all revenge movies are as violent as John Wick or Revenge. In fact, not all of them even have deaths but there is always a wrong that a character is trying to correct.
Though Ocean’s Eight is primarily a heist film, there’s plenty of vengeance to be had. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) was framed by a conman and her ex-boyfriend, Claude Becker. With Debbie finally out of prison, she reunites with her partner in crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett), and they put together a ragtag team of women for a final heist. Their target? A $150 million Cartier necklace to be worn during the MET Gala.
Also in attendance at the MET is Claude Becker, and while the heist is ongoing, Debbie has plans of her own to frame the conman for their elaborate crime. But what’s even more satisfying about this revenge movie is how they pull off an ambitious heist—and what each of the eight members eventually walk away with.
Promising Young Woman (2020)
Revenge movies aren’t always a sub-genre of action. Sometimes the suspense is psychological, as in the case of Promising Young Woman. The thriller stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a medical school dropout who, in her friends’ and family’s eyes, was meandering.
But Cassie isn’t directionless. In fact, she found a purpose in seeking justice for the loss of her best friend, who committed suicide after being repeatedly raped at a med school party. Every night, Cassie goes to bars and pretends to be too drunk to function. She allows men to pick her up, bring her back to their place, and try to take advantage of her—before she wakes up to ask them a question they’d be too guilty to answer, “What are you doing?”
Promising Young Woman is one of the timeliest revenge movies in the #MeToo era. And as dangerously unhinged as her actions may be, and even if she ends up paying the price for them, Cassie’s quest for the truth and for justice does bring her peace in the end.
Bob Odenkirk has proven in Better Call Saul that he’s a serious actor. In Nobody, he showed that he can also take on physically challenging roles that rival Keanu Reeves’ John Wick. He plays Hutch Mansell, a government-employed hitman who retired to start a suburban life.
While he was a good provider, suburbia has suppressed his instincts. His son doesn’t respect him, his co-workers push him around, and his wife hasn’t touched him in a long time. Unlike John Wick who was still feared and respected by the community, Hutch Mansell was a nobody.
But when a pair of robbers attacks his home and he’s unable to protect his family, something reawakens in Hutch. He seeks danger and takes on a couple of thugs who disrupt his bus ride home. Unbeknownst to him, one of the men is the brother of a Russian crime lord who wants to make Hutch pay for the damage he has done.
In this revenge movie, it’s the antagonist who seeks retribution for the main character’s crimes, not the other way around. It’s a twist to revenge movies we’ve seen before. What makes this such a satisfying action thriller, aside from the well-choreographed violent action scenes, is how Hutch transforms from a lowly suburban dad with a boring job—a nobody—into somebody everyone feared.
Revenge movies are often gory and filled with violence, from the many installments of John Wick to psychological thrillers like Promising Young Woman. Perhaps it’s because they depict human actions that aren’t acceptable in society—like killing whoever wrongs you, or framing them for a crime they didn’t commit.
What revenge movies do really well is portray the physical and emotional toll that grudges create overtimes. Even when the main characters eventually get their sweet vengeance, did they really win? Probably not—but at least we got some really cool action sequences out of it.