In “Vendetta,” a former U.S. Marine strikes back at the thugs who murdered his daughter, inciting a routine cycle of violence with occasional flashes of wit that feel like they were spliced in from a different, better movie. Most of those moments have little to do with the main narrative, which follows William Duncan (Clive Standen, “Vikings”) as he tracks down the hooligans who executed his teenage daughter (Maddie Nichols) during an initiation rite.
His revenge angers Donnie Fetter (Bruce Willis), a street-level crime boss who orders his loose-cannon son Rory (Theo Rossi) to do away with William and his wife (Jackie Moore). Despite the warnings by a handwringing but ineffectual detective (Kurt Yue), who tells William violence can only beget more violence, the situation spirals out of control, as it always does in revenge thrillers of this kind. The body count starts to mount. So do the implausibilities, along with the boredom.
Writer-director Jared Cohn, a veritable Orson Welles of landfill B-movies, makes exactly one good decision in all of “Vendetta”: He allows actor Thomas Jane, playing a gun runner who helps William exact his murderous revenge, to ignore the film’s somber tone and do whatever he wants.
Smoking a distractingly large pipe and always swigging from a bottle of beer regardless of the time of day, Jane is the only cast member who understands what kind of movie he’s making. He never takes anything seriously, even when he’s in the middle of a car chase being pelted by gunfire, and most of his lines are so incongruous with the rest of the film (“Can I keep it?” he asks William after extracting a large bullet from his shoulder), it’s a safe bet he improvised most of his dialogue.
As the lead thug, Rossi dials up the sadistic lunacy without generating a trace of menace. He’s a lightweight trying to play a fearsome heavy. Mike Tyson pops up in an extended cameo as a professional car thief for no apparent reason other than to give the film’s producers an excuse to add his face to the poster. Tyson has five minutes of screen time tops, but he knows the kind of picture he’s making, and he looks happy for the opportunity to earn a quick and easy paycheck.
The same cannot be said for Willis, whose distracted and empty performance as the main heavy is hard to watch after the news of his Aphasia diagnosis. Willis spends most of his scenes sitting behind a desk, and the effort to remember his scant dialogue, which once might have seemed lazy, is now heartbreaking.
Despite its template plot, “Vendetta” didn’t have to be so listless. The basic storyline is almost identical to “Death Sentence,” the underrated 2007 revenge drama starring Kevin Bacon and directed by James Wan which took the “Death Wish” formula to such an extreme it felt dangerous and new again. One of the liberties that comes with delving into clichéd genre material is the freedom to subvert expectations and try something different, two things the makers of this film had no interest in doing.
“Vendetta,” which is so curiously timid it doesn’t even provide one memorable bit of gratuitous B-movie gore, will evaporate from your memory the moment you return the disc to the Redbox kiosk from which you rented it.
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