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Hipster Holy Grail: The Revenger (1989)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

The Revenger is an uneven movie - sometimes wildly so - that has just enough good in it that I'd kinda recommend it.  Decent action scenes and a compelling premise are marred by some inconsistent acting and a few too many characters.

My Rating: 3 / 5 (Almost Good Movie)

The Plot Summary

Frank Zagarino, who I haven't seen on this blog since the abysmal Deadly Reckoning many moons ago, stars as Mike Keller, an up-and-coming saxophonist.  The film opens with Keller putting on a hot show at some nightclub and having a great evening with his girlfriend, Lisa (Nancy Mulford).  Life is good.

Then Mackie (Arnold Vosloo) shows up.  I'm not totally clear on who Mackie is, to be honest - the various plot summaries I've seen online call him Mike's brother, but I'm pretty sure he's referred to as "an old friend" who fell out of touch.  Mackie is a sleazeball who's clearly up to shady business and keeps having heated conversations on the phone with Jack Fisher (Oliver Reed), a crime lord of nebulous worth.

There's also a bunch of miscellaneous goons and corrupt cops who wander in and out of scenes both here and throughout the rest of the movie.  They're all vaguely important, but nearly impossible to differentiate.  They just kinda show up as needed, and right now they're all watching Mackie and waiting for the right time to go rough him up / capture him for Fisher.

Mackie is in some trouble over a matter of half a million dollars.  In order to evade capture by either the police or Fisher's goons, he asks Mike to give him a ride, feigning car trouble or some other bullshit excuse.  Mike reluctantly agrees.  On their way through the parking lot, Mike notices a passed out woman in Mackie's car - Mackie shrugs it off, saying she's just some drunk bimbo and she'll be fine until he gets back later.

To his credit, Mike isn't comfortable with any of this, but he still agrees to drive Mackie.  Of all the stuff that happens in this movie, I find this to be the least believable.  Mike is a competent, intelligent, empathetic protagonist the rest of the time, but in this one scene he's like, "Oh, she's basically a prop?  Okay!  I've got no problem leaving her incapacitated in your unlocked car in this poorly-lit parking lot!"

Some cops nearby watch Mike and Mackie leave, and they have pretty much the same suspicious thoughts about the matter.  They go to investigate Mackie's car, and it turns out the woman is dead.  They broadcast Mike's license plate number and tell everybody to be on the lookout.  (Side note: I totally missed the details on who exactly this woman was.  Not important to the story, I guess.)

Meanwhile, Mackie makes Mike pull over, ostensibly so he can take a leak.  Shortly thereafter, the cops show up and start chasing them.  And since the cops are chasing them, Fisher's goons aren't able to pursue Mackie, which is apparently how he was planning on getting away from them this whole time?

If it's not clear, no, I could not follow the finer details of this movie.  I got the big picture, but the minutiae confuses me.

The point is, violence ensues, and Mike is unwittingly caught in the middle.  Mackie is shot to death, but not before a cop is killed.  Mike is arrested as an accessory to the officer's murder, and we very quickly cut to him in prison.  It's one of those Con Air situations where you wonder how bad his lawyer was that they couldn't get him off on a duress defense.

There's a brief montage of Mike in prison.  Then he's released five years later and taken in by Lisa, who has been waiting for him faithfully the whole time.

They have a terse reunion at first, but soon Mike relaxes and gradually de-institutionalizes.  He picks up his sax again and we get a montage of him practicing, occasionally interspersed with him making out with Lisa.  He's even able to get a gig that promises to get him back on track with his music career.  Life is good again.

Enter Fisher's goons.  They pull Mike aside and rough him up, then demand that he give Fisher's money back.  Mike has no idea what they're talking about, but he quickly puts the pieces together: the goons saw him and Mackie together and Fisher figured that Mike was his partner.  Even worse, Fisher has kidnapped Lisa and taken her to his creepy porn mansion where he apparently drugs random women, then films them getting raped and murdered.  Fisher leaves Mike a video note: bring the money or Lisa dies.

This next part is pretty good, and I wish more of the movie was like it.  Mike goes into amateur detective mode to figure out what exactly was going on five years ago, and it turns out he's a lot smarter than even he expected.  He thinks back on the night Mackie showed up and uses what little bits of information he has to retrace their steps.  In so doing, he gets to the place where Mackie had his mystery pee and finds out that, lo and behold, he was not peeing - he was actually hiding Fisher's cash instead.

With the money in hand, Mike arranges an exchange to rescue Lisa and get back to life as usual.  They are supposed to meet up at some kind of amusement center / fairground.  There's a nifty sequence here where Mike tries to hide the cash in what looks like a mini-golf lake, but then one of Fisher's goons finds him and they have a fight.  Mike gets away with the money, then, through happenstance, climbs up to the outside window of a raised train where Fisher and Lisa are sitting.  Mike tries to exchange the money, but things go wrong.  He is knocked off the train and Fisher leaves with Lisa and the bag.

Cut to the most unsettling scene of the movie.  Fisher has Lisa back in his creepy mansion again and discovers that the bag is a decoy filled with straw.  Enraged, he revenge-rapes Lisa and cackles madly.

In the meantime, Mike goes to a friend for help: Harry (Jeff Celentano), a Vietnam vet and survivalist. Harry is a grumbly old man with an eyepatch who pretends to be reluctant about helping out, but you kinda get the sense that he's not actually that bothered by the prospect of murdering some goons.

They go into amateur detective mode again and find Fisher's porn mansion.  Then they sneak inside, and without killing anybody, they find the inner sanctum where Fisher has Lisa tied up.  So far it's a successful rescue mission.  But at the last moment, they get caught by two of Fisher's... women?  Girlfriends?  Prostitutes?  I'm not exactly sure who they are.  Just general sex props that show up in movies like this from time to time.  Anyway, one of the women pulls a gun, so Harry shoots her to death.  It's played up like a tragic "how has it come to this" moment.  Then Mike smashes the shit out out of a two-way mirror in Fisher's bedroom and finds Lisa on the other side, and they all escape.

Fisher eventually comes back home and finds the chaos.  He sends some goons after Mike in retaliation for the one lady's murder (she was apparently his favorite?), and there's another fight scene in Lisa's apartment.  There's also some scenes here with a rando cop character who you think is going to be important.  We'll see.

The upshot of it all is that Harry takes Mike and Lisa to a cabin out in the woods where they can lay low and defend themselves from the inevitable onslaught of Fisher's goons.  There's a gearing-up sequence where they prep the cabin with makeshift land mines and flood lights, and then they tell Lisa to hide in a foxhole out in the forest.

While all that's going on, we also catch up with an undercover cop who may or may not be corrupt.  He's getting nervous and sweaty and keeps trying to find ways to alert the rest of the police department about Fisher's location.  Eventually he's able to slip a note to an unsuspecting clerk at a country mart, who in turn calls the police.  The cops send a helicopter in the direction of Harry's cabin.

They aren't able to get there fast enough.  Before the cops arrive, there's a pretty good sequence where Fisher's goons try to storm the cabin and Harry and Mike take them out, one by one.  There's some good fire stunts here and at least one good Predator-style freakout where a goon rushes into the cabin blindly and gets gunned down.

In the mix, the undercover cop gets killed, which is a weird moment.  I didn't actually think he was really dead at first, because the implication is that he's one of the few people who's actually trying to bring Fisher down rather than help him tie up loose ends.  You'd expect him to try to work with Mike and Harry, or at least for there to be some repercussions later when the police find out they killed the undercover guy.  But, no, he's just dead.

Eventually it gets to a point where only Fisher is left alive.  He sets the cabin on fire, then finds Lisa and holds her at gunpoint.  You briefly think he might have the upper hand, but then Harry shoots the crap out of him.  Lisa runs into the burning cabin to rejoin Mike and Harry, and then Fisher, mortally wounded, chases her in one last attempt for revenge-rape.  The house erupts into a huge fireball, and the cops finally descend on the scene.

The next morning, that one rando cop investigating Fisher is looking at the burnt-down husk of the cabin and contemplating on the waste of resources.  He and all the other cops wrap up their investigation for the day and leave.  The camera holds on the cabin husk for a moment, and then a secret panel in the floor opens up.  Mike, Lisa, and Harry climb out from a hidden compartment, no worse for the wear.  (And without suffering asphyxiation, either.  Some how.)

They all have a good laugh and Mike reveals that he still has Mackie's cash.  They all cheer and decide to go to the beach.  The end.

Well, actually, first that lead cop comes back and reveals that he's also corrupt, and briefly he threatens to kill them, but he only lightly wounds Harry before he gets shot to death.  Then they go to the beach.  The end.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

This is a very uneven movie.  The Revenger's tone and quality are all over the place.

There are some sequences that are really, really good.  The post-kidnapping sequence where Mike has to figure shit out?  That part is fantastic.  It's really tightly-paced and interesting.  And I dug the stunt work when Mike first clings to the train, then falls off it and smashes through a kiosk below.

But immediately before that?  It was kind of melodramatic and a little bit cheesy.

And of course, immediately after, there's the rape scene.  Sigh.

I'm really conflicted about that scene in particular.  There's so many layers to work through.  At the top is visceral disgust, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.  Then there's the level where I appreciate how effective rape is at motivating your audience.  You want to make somebody loathsome?  Turn them into a rapist.  Your audience will be itching for that guy to get gutted.  But I also recognize how cheap a trick that is, and then I get kind of annoyed at somebody being manipulative in such a gross way.  And then I just wonder why it is I don't get as annoyed by other horrible crimes....

Here's the bottom line.  Sometimes rape works in a movie.  In the right hands, it gets you in the moment, the same as any other hideous act you might see - murder, drug abuse, slavery, whatever.  But I don't think The Revenger has the right approach.

For one thing, it has almost no consequence.  Lisa is upset about her rape for maybe ten minutes, and then she's basically back to normal.  I don't expect her to lose all semblance of humanity or anything extreme like that, but shouldn't she at least be rattled?

And if you're going to put something that awful in a movie purely to characterize your villain, then you need to kill the everloving shit out of your villain.  Don't just have him get shot and die off screen.  Have his nuts get caught in a bear trap.  Have him lose a leg, and then while he's bleeding out, a tiger mauls on his guts.  Or, if he's going to burn to death, give us some sense that he's actually burning.  Show us something or let us hear him scream so that we get that cathartic, "That's what you get for rape, you son of a bitch!" moment.  Why call your movie "The Revenger" if you're not going to show true vengeance?

(Note that this is a rule for movies only.  Revenge is a terrible idea in the real world.)

The unevenness goes beyond the tone.  The acting is alternately good and ham-fisted.  The music is alternately catchy and silly.  The action scenes are pretty decent throughout, but the build-up to them is alternately tense and ho-hum.

And the pacing?  So strange.  There are ten-minute chunks that are perfectly constructed, like the initial sequence with Mackie.  But then you have things like the prison sequence, which is entirely inconsequential.  Why even bother?  Mike's prison sentence isn't important to the story at all.  Just have him get away from that initial car crash as a person of interest, and then you can do the rest of the movie as is, but with that extra layer of suspense - "Are the cops going to arrest him or what?"

The result is that I can't honestly give it more than a 3 / 5.  It fits most comfortably in the Almost Good Movie category in my bullshit rating system.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Obscurity bonus: 30 points, with about 240 ratings on IMDb as of today.  I'll also give it a half-recommendation bonus of 15 points.

I'll give it pedigree bonuses of 5 points for Frank Zagarino, 10 points for Cedric Sundstrom's direction (he also made American Ninjas 3 and 4), and another 5 points for baby Arnold Vosloo.

I'm going to dock it 10 points for rape, though.  It's really hard to be smug and drop a hipster recommendation on somebody when you have to say, "Oh, but there's a bit of rape.  Sorry 'bout that."

Finally, I'm going to give it another 15 points for general hipster style: 5 points for the montages, 5 points for the '80s-ness, and 5 points for the saxaphone.

That comes to a total of 70 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  But there's a bit of rape.  Sorry 'bout that.

Where You Can Watch

I don't think it's streaming anywhere, but The Revenger is available on DVD.  I rented a copy from Netflix.