I was very excited for this movie.
The Soskas had gone on record as saying that they wanted to do a Punisher movie and that this was their proof of concept. On that front it works – we now know that the Soska sisters can direct some pretty badass fight sequences. We knew they weren’t going to shy away from violence or gore from their previous work, and we know they had some idea of shooting a fight from their first film.
Vendetta gives them the chance to shoot several high-end brawls and they do not disappoint. And if that’s the only thing you’re looking for, you’ll love this. The Soska’s love of wrestling shines through, and that’s a good thing: professional wrestling is the art of telling a story within the context of a fight, and that’s what movie fighting should be. Every battle in this film is a visceral experience that builds on what came before, ramping up the mayhem right until the climax.
The direction is equally tight, exactly what we’ve come to expect from these directors. There’s no fat, no lollygagging about. Every angle implies the shifting power dynamics between characters, and gives the actors a chance to shine. No time is wasted, and this is a very brisk ninety minute film.
Dean Cain gives a solid performance as a man who becomes a force of nature, and you can see him being Frank Castle throughout this movie. Likewise, Paul “Big Show” Wight gives a good turn as the villain, but this shouldn’t come as a shock to any wrestling fan. We’re all aware of the range Paul is capable of, and he brings that all to bear here. His cronies turn in some pretty decent performances as well, and Michael Eklund is beautifully slimy as Warden Snyder.
Everyone brings their a-game, adding depth to a script that is utterly lacking it.
And that cuts to the heart of the problem with this movie: the script is fucking terrible. There’s a good story here that is mangled under bad dialogue, a total lack of subtext, nonsensical side character motivation, and nothing making any goddamn sense.
Spoilers ahead, because I’m about to get very angry. Story is kind of my thing, and this script fails two excellent directors and an excellent cast and pisses away what could have been a much better movie. As proof of concept, I’m going to make suggestions as to how this goes in italics, because this movie made me furious and I want to help the writer make better movies.
Dean Cain plays a cop who is after a criminal mastermind played by Paul Wight. Dean tracks him down to an abandoned warehouse, they fight, Dean looks suicidally dedicated to his job, and Paul gets caught when Dean’s back up arrives to save his life. So far, so good.
Paul gets out on a technicality and a disappeared witness. Okay, cool. He shows up and murders Dean’s wife, because vengeance. I’m still down. Given what we know about Paul’s character (little), his need for revenge could outweigh common sense. His desire to get caught is a little iffy, but explained later on. I’m still down.
This is the last time anything in this movie makes any sense at all.
Dean goes out and murders a bunch of people, including Paul’s brother. We know Paul’s brother is bad, but those other guys? They’re just there. Dean butchers them, lets his partner know that he’s going to do this beforehand, and then waits to get caught so he can be sent to the same prison that Paul is in.
A heartbroken Dean finds out that Paul’s brother is doing bad things with bad people. He goes vigilante and kills them while they’re doing something bad, maybe human trafficking or something equally awful, and butchers them. He lets his partner know and the cops try and cover it up, but an Internal Affairs task force shows up and explains that Paul is still running things from prison, and they’d like to send Dean in to investigate. He’ll be alone, no back-up, so they tell him to do what he has to do to survive.
Dean, who is called a hero cop, goes to prison and is put in general population. The Warden is happy to have him there, and has put him on laundry duty. He meets an ex-cop, not a prison guard, who explains to him the realities of prison life. His roommate says maybe two words to him.
Dean is put in general population, and has a talk with an overtly helpful Warden. He meets a guard who isn’t down with the corruption, but is more about not rocking the boat than being heroic; he and Dean went through the academy together but haven’t seen one another in years. He also meets his roommate, a lifer whose been there forever and really just wants to be left alone.
Everyone seems surprised when he’s ambushed and nearly killed. We find out Paul and the Warden have an arrangement, and that Paul is working for the Warden and the Warden is angry that Paul is on the inside, despite us learning that Paul has a network that allows him to work just as well from inside the prison as out, and then he effectively runs the prison through violence and fear.
We find out the Warden is on Paul’s payroll, and he’s basically running the place as his personal fortress. Paul rules the prison through violence and fear, but he didn’t kill everyone and there’s a simmering resentment that is hiding underneath all that fear. He’s put a bounty on Dean’s head, but wants him beaten but not killed – killing him would draw attention, but everyone knows cops don’t do well in prison.
Paul wants to kill him outright, but the Warden claims it’ll cause too much heat. Later on, when they lure Dean’s partner there and kill the partner in front of him, no one bats a fucking eye. They still don’t kill Dean because… reasons?
Dean tries to contact his Internal Affairs friends on the outside, but this just gives Paul a means of finding out who they are. Using his control over the Wardens and the guards, Paul lures the IA Agents in and murders all of them in front of Dean, letting Dean know that he’s now all alone in here.
The Warden approaches Dean and cuts a deal with him, undercutting Paul’s authority and giving Dean permission and aid in going after some of Paul’s people. When Paul goes to complain, the Warden has a guard shove a shotgun in Paul’s face. Later, they will become friends again. Meanwhile, the ex-cop gives Dean a speech about not picking sides. This won’t mean anything later.
Dean’s partner picks up the pieces of the IA investigation, and goes to tell whoever will listen while the Warden plays damage control. Meanwhile, Dean realizes he has nothing left to lose and vanishes into the woodwork, using his knowledge of police procedure and his bunkmate’s knowledge of the prison to take advantage of prison security, hammering at Paul’s people. The non-cop prison guard manages to find Dean, and Dean gives a speech about duty and suchlike and the non-cop lets him go.
The Warden tries to get Dean to do things, and Dean tells him to go to hell. The Warden and Paul are friends again. The bunkmate who was last seen maybe an hour ago does a thing for Dean, allowing him to ambush one of Paul’s flunkies. He manages to ambush the other one on his own for no reason. Said prisoner is thrown on top of a corrupt prison guard, and a prisoner grabs his rifle. In the prison that Paul controls and where everyone works for him, this causes a riot.
The Warden is getting panicky as Dean’s slaughtering is starting get outside attention, and the partner is trying to get someone else to go in and investigate what’s going on. Paul’s set up a series of watch points to try and trap Dean, but Dean is using bunkmate’s knowledge of the prison to ambush them and murder them. He tosses one of Paul’s flunkies off the roof and he lands on a corrupt guard. One of Paul’s browbeaten rival grabs a shotgun from the dead guard and goes after Paul. A riot ensues.
SWAT people show up? Where did they come from? The guards and prisoners who all work for Paul fight one another, and Paul and Dean fight and kill a lot of people to get to one another. Dean eventually kills Paul but is going to be killed by the Warden, but the ex-cop points a gun at him after the cavalry shows up. Dean makes a comment about choosing a side but, no, he really hasn’t. The movie ends.
Dean and Paul square off, but neither is able to get the upperhand and they’re separated in the chaos. The browbeaten rival goes after Paul with the shotgun and gets himself good and killed. Meanwhile, Dean is ambushed by the Warden, but Paul is out of his damn mind and goes after them both. The Warden slithers away as Dean and Paul fight, with Dean finally getting a gun and shooting Paul in the head. The Warden immediately takes over, using the information Paul had to turn the guards to his side, and he sends everyone after Dean. Dean fights but is going to be taken down when non-cop snipers the Warden, and everyone backs down. The cavalry, led by partner, show up moments later. Dean gives them a million mile stare. He is not okay, and nothing will ever be okay again.
That ending? You can sequel that ending. You can franchise that, turn that into a whole goddamn series. We get multiple character arcs and even more potential for violence and bloodshed, but here it makes sense and there are stakes – something that this movie lacks – because you get invested in several characters. The actors are forced to try and resurrect a lifeless script, and the direction is good enough that this is watchable, but it makes less sense than Dead Hooker in a Trunk (link to review).
I can’t recommend this. The final fight sequence with the riot is fantastic, and the fighting throughout is awesome. The actors turn in good performances with what they’re given across the board, and the Soskas make this script more than it has any business being, but the stakes aren’t there because there’s no real character or nuance and the story is awful.
Further, the Soskas have built a name for themselves by violently tackling larger issues within the context of their films. Dead Hooker in a Trunk looked at cultural apathy, American Mary dealt with body dysmorphia and the consequences of student debt in an increasingly disparate economy, and See No Evil 2 looked at the inevitability of death and the fear of a life without meaning. This movie could have taken a look at the inherent corruption of the for-profit prison system, the acceptance of organized crime as a cultural norm, the cost and emptiness of toxic masculinity… there’s a lot of weight to be explored in the concept, and the script utterly fails everyone.
The Soskas are going back to bloody social commentary with their next project, which is called Plastic. It’s going to be about the obsession with youth and physical beauty, and how far people are willing to go to be beautiful and the insanity of cosmetic surgery. Not sure what Dean Cain is up to next, but he does visceral action well and I’d watch him in another violent action movie again. Paul Wight, of course, can be seen every week in the WWE.