The 15 Best Revenge Movies Ranked
The revenge genre goes as far back as ancient Greek mythology, but found a just-desserts apex in Rome through the plays of Seneca. In "Thyestes," the eponymous protagonist loses the throne to his brother Atreus and so seduces his wife out of spite. Atreus then lures Thyestes with a promise of shared rule, but instead feeds him a dish made out of his own children.
Beowulf, centuries later, employs powerful revenge elements, too. When the monster Grendel attacks the great hall of King Hrothgar and kills many of his men, Beowulf hunts down the creature and slays him. But that only unleashes another revenge plot: Grendel's grieving mother counter-attacks the Danes, and the cycle of violence continues.
Modern revenge films usually narrow down the inciting incident to a murdered or missing family member. The horrors of Seneca's "Thyestes" could be a tough sell to Hollywood studios as an A plot — though the Frey pie scene from "Game of Thrones" invokes this scenario. The best films don't usually get mired in classical complexity or even the despair of Shakespearean tragedies like "Hamlet." Revenge movies are mostly ticket-selling crowd-pleasers, anchored by two hours of mayhem with a rousing and cathartic finale. Despite the high-brow origins, it's a gratifyingly base genre, and the enduring popularity says something about the deeply human impulse for a bloody reckoning. These are the 15 best revenge movies ranked.
How did a film with all the cinematic style of a TV movie of the week like "Taken" spawn a huge franchise and turn a nearly 60-year-old Liam Neeson into an action superstar? Behold the power of the revenge plot.
Neeson plays an earnestly cheesy divorcee trying to reconnect with his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), after many years as a far-flung covert-ops super-soldier. As Kim's uber-rich stepdad spoils her with an Arabian horse, one of cinema's more rugged actors seems genuinely out of place standing around grinning pleasantly in polo shirts. But, when 17-year-old Kim follows the '80s rock band U2 to Europe (in the year 2008, no less) she's abducted by a sinister gang of human traffickers. Enter the man with "special skills," and a thirst to use them.
"Taken" makes a stunning turn after Kim's abduction. It goes from cringe to one of the best and most violent action thrillers of the decade. Director Pierre Morel doesn't have much feel for the quieter moments, but he knows exactly how to string together action sequences without turning it all into a pointless blur. As Neeson throat-punches the lowly pimps of Paris all the way up the organized crime ladder, the choreography rivals something you might see from a lifelong martial artist Donnie Yen in "Ip Man." The shots are shorter and the cuts quicker, similar to "The Bourne Identity," but "Taken" is an absolute B-movie revenge masterpiece that will hit you where it counts.
Korean productions have really been filling a niche for extreme violence and psychological horror that American studios aren't willing to embrace. Netflix's "Squid Game" took the world by storm in 2021, and not because it's some cinematic masterpiece. It just pushes into unsettling territory that American Netflix productions won't broach. You could say the same about director Bong Joon Ho's "Parasite" in 2019, where he was dubbed Best Director at the Oscars for his efforts.
"Oldboy" from 2003 was never going to be welcomed on the American awards circuit, but it has this same sadomasochistic sensibility and verve for pushing the envelope. Choi Min-sik stars as an obnoxious drunkard who is abducted and locked in a cheap motel room for 15 years. First, he despairs. Then, he trains. When he's suddenly released, a series of clues leads him to his mysterious and sadistic captors who have much more pain still planned.
Both villain and anti-hero are seeking revenge in this fantastically bloody martial arts-tinged film. If you struggle with subtitles, the Spike Lee-directed remake from 2013 starring Josh Brolin is excellent, too. It definitely has better production values and looks cleaner on a 4K screen. Director Park Chan-wook's original goes places the U.S. version won't, though, so if you want revenge served cold and with maximal B-movie extremity, this Korean film hasn't been topped.
Hailee Steinfeld is a serious delight when she's on the warpath. In 2010's "True Grit," she plays Mattie, the plucky daughter of a father murdered by an infamous outlaw played by Josh Brolin. She's got a thirst for vengeance, but she's 14-years-old. She ultimately hires a drunken one-eyed bounty hunter, Rooster Cogburn — played by Jeff Bridges, who really leans into this crusty old cowboy role.
This is a remake of the John Wayne classic from 1969, which is also very enjoyable, but the modern incarnation better captures the novel's, well, grit. Revenge stories should be a little dark, and Hollywood of the 1960s just didn't quite have the stomach to fully embrace the 1968 book by Charles Portis.
However, this excellent remake does elide the murder of Mattie's father. Revenge films need to put you in the headspace of the hero to deliver the climactic catharsis, and this omission does lower the stakes. But, it also leaves something to the imagination and suits this Mattie, who isn't haunted — more like determined. She's unwavering in her mission, and has all the smarts and gumption she needs to navigate the lawless society that killed her father. Female-centered revenge stories are often the best, and this one really works because the teen hero can't rely on physical advantages. She's got her wits, and her titular grit, and that's enough.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
It's hard to say which version is better: the original Swedish adaptation, or the more polished David Fincher remake from 2011. The original has the better Lisbeth Salander; Noomi Rapace so perfectly captured the darkness inside this cyberpunk hacker that she's irreplaceable. But if Fincher remakes your movie, unfortunately, you've got the second-best version.
Stieg Larsson died just before the publication of his novels, so he never got to see them become a global phenomenon. Like his main character Mikael Blomkvist, Larsson was a left-wing journalist dedicated to sniffing out Nazis in Swedish society. You write what you know, and that really works here. Daniel Craig in Fincher's version as Blomkvist isn't as pained and restrained as Michael Nyqvist's take on the character, but he's good, too. It's not a role that cries out for a megastar at the height of his James Bond cache, but it's not overly distracting to watch 007 puzzle through the main plot about a cold case disappearance of a beautiful young heiress.
Since this is Larsson's world, what unfolds is a tale of incestuous secret fascists, and the victim's identity makes Salander the perfect heroine to correct this far-right wrong. We don't get the backstory for our leather-clad hacker hero until the sequel, "The Girl Who Played with Fire," but we know more than enough. Salander's own revenge subplot is one of the more satisfyingly righteous acts of violence ever put onscreen.
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"John Wick" begins as the ultimate emo action movie, but it takes a truly excellent turn into fully automatic heavy metal territory. Keanu Reeves, playing a kung fu-capable hitman, dips well below his low-key ennui from "The Matrix" into a quiet rage as the titular character, grieving the loss of his wife. The once king of California surfer vibes has matured into a stoic soldier of fortune, but when a Russian gang kills his beloved dog, he becomes vengeance — minus any real visible cues of anger on his handsome face.
As much as this film looks like a graphic novel adaptation, "John Wick" is that rare thing in Hollywood: an original idea. However, it makes great use of the comic genre's exaggerated noir textures to create an Earth-adjacent universe. Wick ostensibly lives in the New York City area, but really, it's an alternate reality where super-assassins work for gold coins like video game characters and congregate under a flag of truce in a stylish hotel in lower Manhattan.
More action franchises should borrow the unreality of "John Wick" to shunt aside those the nitpicking critics Alfred Hitchcock famously dubbed "the plausibles." We've all heard their skeleton key of expert analysis: "That would never happen!" This film works because nothing in "John Wick" would ever happen. John's dog dies, and he commits 77 murders in retaliation. It's definitely an overreaction, but in the Wick-verse, it's all part of an elite assassin's code, so you just go with it.
David Fincher's 2014 "Gone Girl" adaptation is based on Gillian Flynn's popular novel of the same name, which was partly inspired by the infamous Laci Peterson disappearance. Peterson was eight months pregnant when she vanished on Christmas Eve 2002. The case gripped the nation as attention turned to her unfaithful husband, Scott. Tragically, Laci and her unborn child were found dead, and Scott was eventually convicted, but mysteries such as this — as well as marriage in general — got Flynn's wheels turning.
Stories about bourgeois boredom that devolve into deadly desperation are rife for exploration. "Revolutionary Road" from 2008, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as two stir-crazy suburbanites, covers similar terrain. But "Gone Girl" flips the genre into a revenge fantasy motivated by the unfulfilled promises of white picket fence bliss.
Brad Pitt and Jon Hamm were both offered the Ben Affleck role as Nick, the cheating husband who gets blamed for the disappearance of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike). But could anyone besides the exasperated Affleck of this famed smoking photo better portray the dilettante husband who unleashes Amy's inner psychopath? Fincher himself admitted he pegged Affleck for Nick after Googling pictures of his affable smile. This is largely a film about appearances: Amy's image as fodder for a children's book, Nick's management of public suspicion, and in the end, the facade of a twisted marriage.
"The Crow" is among the most sorrowful films ever made. Star Brandon Lee grew up in the long shadow of legendary father Bruce Lee, who died suddenly at age 32 just before the release of "Enter the Dragon," the film that immortalized him as a martial arts demigod. Hollywood lost Brandon even younger when a prop gun on the set of this 1994 film was fired and a real bullet struck him near his spine. He was only 28 years old. Thanks to movie magic, director Alex Proyas was able to finish "The Crow." Most of the principal photography was done, but a combination of body double shots and extremely cutting-edge CG (for the time) was used to fill in the gaps.
Brandon Lee's shocking death, and the extremely gothic aesthetic of this film, have helped it amass a devoted cult following. It's an incredibly stylish achievement about a young man and his fiancee who are brutally murdered during a home invasion. When Lee's character is resurrected via the power of the eponymous crow, he goes on a fantastically bloody crusade for vengeance. "The Crow" is a far better film than anything Lee's more legendary father ever made. (Critics like Roger Ebert agree.) It just lacks historical significance. Still, this story about a man getting payback for his own death will likely never again be told with a more moody impact or heartbreaking subtext. We'll see how "The Crow" reboot compares to the original.
Quentin Tarantino is a style merchant. He's not a philosopher, an activist, or a spiritualist. His movies are about movies, and he stuffs his numbered works with humorous homages to films from his childhood. Some critics have argued this makes his work empty. "It's not art, it's imitation," they bristle.
And yet, that's what makes Tarantino Tinseltown's foremost revenge plot auteur. Hollywood revenge stories aren't complex and filled with ambiguity. They're morally simple: villain does evil, hero hunts them down and kills them. That's the appeal. Tarantino, though, also happens to be an elite aesthete and the master of building up cathartic payoffs, so there's no one better at evoking the ancient emotions these stories trigger.
2012's "Django Unchained" is part of the director's mid-career move to another kind of revenge: rewriting past wrongs with fanciful revisionist histories as he did with "Inglourious Basterds." Jamie Foxx plays a freed slave who becomes a bounty hunter hell-bent on saving his common-law wife from bondage, too. Christoph Waltz is his dapper partner, and Leonardo DiCaprio plays a swashbuckling slaver running a hateful human chattel combat league. It's basically a Spaghetti western with a little apology to Germany for all the torture and caricatures in his previous film by making the Austrian-German Waltz an anti-racist martyr. Dismiss this filmmaker if you want, or better, delight in this man's incredibly cool remixes of world history.
From "Alien" to "Blade Runner," director Ridley Scott has created some of the most indelible images ever put to film. He's an aesthete first, and fittingly, Scott signed on for "Gladiator" when he was shown a painting called "Pollice Verso" by Jean-Léon Gérôme' from 1872. It depicts a Roman gladiator awaiting his fate as the crowd gives thumbs up or down. "That image spoke to me of the Roman Empire in all its glory and wickedness," Scott said in his biography. "I knew right then and there I was hooked."
Scott's visuals, like Russell Crowe's hand feeling its way through a field of wheat, have been endlessly copied. It's a spiritual moment in the revenge quest of General Maximus after the spiteful emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) steals the throne and then kills the family of Rome's top commander.
"Gladiator" is the kind of big-budget sword-and-sandals filmmaking that doesn't come along that often anymore. 2004's "Troy" was another effort, and it's so uneven that star Brad Pitt swore he'd never do a cheesy hero story again. Even more disastrous for studio financiers was Oliver Stone's "Alexander," starring Colin Farrell. The graphic novel theatrics of "300" hit big in 2007, but it really exists in its own comic book reality. Scott alone nailed the genre in modern Hollywood. The simple revenge plot of "Gladiator" is what gives this sweeping epic such compelling emotional stakes, and Scott's uncanny knack for visual iconography brings it all home.
Hollywood has been steadily obsessed with Nazis since WWII. From the treasure-hunting fascists of the "Indiana Jones" franchise to the parallel universe Nazis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these are American movies' most reliable villains. And yet, before Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" in 2009, no major filmmaker had thought to just rewrite the ending of the Second World War as a Jewish revenge tale. Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, the leader of a band of guerilla Nazi hunters. As he explains, "A Nazi ain't got no humanity. They're the footsoldiers of a Jew-hating mass-murdering maniac, and they need to be destroyed."
Pitt's band of Jewish fighters plots to assassinate the Nazi leadership, and of course, since this is a cinema-obsessed Tarantino world, it's all going to happen in a movie theater. "Inglourious Basterds" also made a star out of the incredible Christoph Waltz, who plays the main Nazi baddie. The role almost went to Leonardo DiCaprio, but the director wanted someone who could speak fluent German. Another fun casting fact: Adam Sandler was offered the Eli Roth part as the "Bear Jew." Sandler tragically chose to make "Funny People" instead.
The Clown Prince of Crime in Todd Phillips' stirring 2019 "Joker" wants revenge on his entire society. Arthur Fleck's shocking appearance on a late-night show hosted by Robert De Niro's Murray Franklin is the capper to this disturbed man's revenge arc. Murray is the symbol of polite society. He's a hack network comic who makes milquetoast jokes for a comfy bourgeois consensus class to which Arthur could never belong.
And yet, Arthur loves Murray. He even wants to be Murray, in his own ill-conceived stand-up efforts. But he can't hold a normal conversation, let alone the rapt attention of a crowd. And so, in a moment of shocking violence, he becomes vengeance. Phillips' film gives the classic comic villain's penchant for violence a realistic origin. Joker's maniacal laugh, for example, is explained as a condition modeled after the Pseudobulbar affect, or PBA, which can be caused by brain trauma.
Joaquin Phoenix looked for more sociological motivation. "I thought of him having these reactions that one would consider inappropriate," he told IndieWire. "I thought of the movie as a commentary on humor in our PC culture. Somebody who was out of touch with the world, laughing at school at something horrible that has happened." The crumbling mental health system in Gotham is portrayed as letting loose a nihilistic revolution. It's all beautifully rendered by Phillips' direction and cinematographer Lawrence Sher's orange and teal palette, elevating this comic adaptation into the echelon of high art.
Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning 1992 masterpiece "Unforgiven" doubles up on the revenge plots. Eastwood is Willian Munny, described as a "known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition" in the film. He's tried to restart his life as a pig farmer, but in frustration, takes on a contract to kill some cowboys who brutally assaulted a young sex worker.
The young woman's co-workers are fed up with their lot and pool their money to hire a hitman. So initially, this is nearly a feminist revenge fantasy. But as the lure of this bounty brings various killers to town, the sheriff, played by Gene Hackman, emerges as the real villain. When he commits a horrible act of cruelty on Munny's only real friend, a fellow semi-retired outlaw played by Morgan Freeman, the second revenge plot unfolds.
"Unforgiven" and its various vendettas are wildly entertaining; the film's status comes not from the western plot, though, but from the anti-western thematics. Eastwood as the star and director takes on the genre's unrealistic cliches about gun violence — much of which was instantiated by the actor himself in his iconic Spaghetti westerns of the 1960s. "Unforgiven" deconstructs the director's own canon, arguing that real killers don't necessarily have the fastest guns. They just have the coldest hearts and the steadiest hands.
The inciting incident for the revenge plot of "Braveheart" arises from a supposedly real and hideous custom called "the right of prima nocta," or the right of the "first night." The cruel king Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) enacts this old practice where nobles are permitted to have sex with the brides of newlywed commoners. The king wants to "breed out" the Scots whose lands he occupies. To avoid this fate, William Wallace (Gibson) marries his wife in secret, but when an English noble executes her for a minor offense, a Scottish rebellion is born of one man's rage.
It turns out evidence of prima nocta during medieval times is basically non-existent, according to Medium. Essentially, the custom was popularized as a plot device to make the "dark ages" look bad, and enlightened protagonists appear virtuous by comparison. (Mentions of customs like prima nocta go back to Mesopotamia and the oldest extant story in existence, "Epic of Gilgamesh," from at least 2000 B.C.) Moviegoers were still interested in 1996 when Gibson's classic dominated the Academy Awards, including wins for Best Picture and Best Director. "Braveheart" taps into the vengeance genre with archetypal perfection in one of the most moving and inspiring tragedies ever made.
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Nicolas Cage is a polarizing performer, but love him or hate him, "Mandy" is the kind of gonzo revenge fantasy that should convert even the most ardent skeptics. Director Panos Cosmatos' 2018 full-tilt horror masterpiece is like a 1980s heavy metal album cover come to life. There are cults, demons, piles of carnage, and a wild-eyed Nic going full Cage-rage, and beyond. It's truly a sight to behold. Cage plays Red Miller, a logger living peacefully with his girlfriend in a remote mountain wilderness. When a twisted cult rolls through town and shatters his world, Red begins a bloody, chainsaw-wielding descent into hell.
"Mandy" is wildly stylish. Much of the cinematography is flooded with jagged lens flares and ominously crimson rays of volumetric light. This is a fully digital film, but Panos and team push the lossless Arri Alexa footage into seriously grainy territory to mimic the look of vintage, low-budget horror movies from the 1970s like "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." But be warned, Leatherface is mild-mannered compared to this film's protagonist. "Mandy" is an absolutely bonkers revenge fantasy dressed up as a psychedelic art film with Hollywood's least subtle actor at its sopping wet center. It's all incredibly excessive and disturbing, and also the most vivid, hypnotic, and brutal revenge film ever made.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & 2
Some of "Kill Bill" is overly bright and saturated with garish colors. It's an aesthetic that seems out of place in the gritty American martial arts genre, unless you know what director Quentin Tarantino has in mind. The epic revenge duology opens with a Shaw Brothers logo from the 1970s. That's the Hong Kong studio that created the kung fu classics Tarantino is aping, and it's filled with goofy candy-colored fantasies like "Five Deadly Venoms" (1978), and self-serious revenge films like "Five Fingers of Death" (1972).
"Kill Bill" is full of '70s references not just in visual style, but in casting. Japanese star Sonny Chiba from the '70s "Street Fighter" franchise has a nice cameo, and David Carradine of "Kung Fu" fame is the lead baddie. This world is one in which super-assassins have secret call signs and belong to a "Deadly Viper Assassination Squad." The name is amusingly literal, redundant, and clunky, harkening to the elite martial arts orders found in Chinese Wuxia cinema.
The vintage details and mythology of "Kill Bill" are pure homage, and yet this tale of a woman getting revenge on a murderous ex who left her for dead is no less impactful. Tarantino is the ultimate collage artist, and this ode to Japanese samurai films, Hong Kong kung fu movies, and Italian Spaghetti westerns takes the payback genre to its true eclectic apotheosis.
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