Revenge plays a leading role in this summer's movies: It haunts the dark halls of nightmare high schools in "187," accelerates the action in "Speed 2: Cruise Control," and drives a brilliant FBI agent to compromise his identity in "Face/Off."
Revenge has long been a stock motive for countless movie crimes. It rears its ugly head in a variety of guises in action-adventures, gangster pictures, westerns, history dramas, and comedies. Usually the vengeance seeker is the bad guy. But sometimes it's the hero himself (remember John Wayne in "The Searchers").
Lately, though, more protagonists than ever have been doing in their antagonist with hardly a squirm of conscience. The moral compass in these films is pointing to a different pole.
In "187," for example, a distinguished African-American teacher liquidates a murderous Chicano high school student who has threatened to kill a white teacher. Samuel Jackson gives another stunning performance as a tragic figure, a teacher who has lost "his spark, his passion, and his unguarded self" after a near-fatal stabbing, but who doesn't realize that he has also lost his moral compass.
Fear of injustice
The ethical confusion in this and other films seems to arise from an increasing fear in society that justice is hard to come by, that the guilty routinely go free, and that the innocent are routinely made to suffer - not only at the hands of the perpetrators, but also at the hands of the law.
News media crime reports tend to reinforce the idea that danger is all around, that the system does not work, and that the only way to protect yourself (or guarantee just retribution) is to pick up a gun and do it yourself.
And ever since the series of Charles Bronson's "Death Wish" revenge fantasies first appeared (1971-1994), fewer and fewer films now question the vigilante mind-set.
Meanwhile, the real triumphs of justice that happen every day are seldom celebrated. While many dedicated people work toward concrete solutions to problems such as domestic violence, the movie response to such violence is often less constructive. In "Dolores Claiborne" (1995), for example, the title character kills her brutal husband with his own vices.
In many films, the protagonists appear to have no recourse but violence. In "Eye for an Eye" (1996), for example, Sally Field's bereaved mother executes the man who murdered her daughter. While such a movie may be seen as a cry for justice, it also stirs up feelings of fear and encourages the viewer to cheer on the protagonist in the desire for vengeance.
Of course, when the vengeance seeker is the villain - like the Willem Dafoe bomber out to punish the company that first poisoned, then fired him in "Speed 2," or the angry students retaliating for imagined affronts in "187" - the nature of the passion is obvious.
Revenge film of the moment
And the revenge-against-all-women planned by Chad and Howard in the controversial film "In the Company of Men" is despicable (see story, left). These two conscience-free victimizers plot to ensnare a particularly fragile woman with a rush of attention, and then cruelly dump her when she falls for one of them.
Comedies centered on revenge often point out how poor are its wages. Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn may giggle wickedly over the misery they plan for their philandering ex-husbands in "The First Wives Club" (1996), but they eventually turn on one another. Then they wise up: Petty revenge hurts those who pursue it. But justice is another matter: They punish their husbands with less malice than wit.
But in "Addicted to Love" (1997), Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick spend most of the picture getting even with their ex-lovers. Eventually they see how wrong they are, but it's too late for the viewer: The nasty emotions left in the wake of the characters' spite overwhelm the comedy.
Tim Robbins learns more quickly the emptiness of revenge in "Nothing to Lose" - an offbeat, slightly sophomoric comedy that ends up embracing family values and interracial understanding.
These comedies at least question the satisfactions of revenge.
Because the impulse to revenge arises in the wake of injustice, it may be interpreted as a legitimate route to justice - and it's sometimes no small trick sorting this out.
Revenge fantasies can have a disturbing effect on viewers as they invite the vivid imagining of violent retaliation. Yet, as many of the most interesting characters come to realize, revenge is not sweet. And true justice leapfrogs revenge.