The time has finally arrived for audiences to get their Keanu Reeves fix in John Wick: Chapter 2, the sequel to the 2014 action sleeper hit that won over critics and audiences alike — and resurrected Reeves’ career in the process.
John Wick‘s genius was its almost comically absurd plot. Bad guys kill the protagonist’s dog (okay that isn’t funny at all), and steal his car. Protagonist kills everyone responsible in order to avenge his heartbreakingly cute beagle puppy. Throw in a unique criminal underworld, Wick’s impeccable assassin skills and stylish action, and you have an instant action movie classic.
That’s pretty much it, and that beautifully pure premise made John Wick one of the best revenge thrillers of all time. In honor of John Wick Chapter 2, here’s our list of 15 revenge thrillers that every diehard John Wick fan needs to check out. We’ve included several movies that directly influenced the burgeoning hitman franchise, as well as some underrated action flicks that deserve your time.
15. Oldboy (2003)
One film that had a pronounced influence on John Wick was Oldboy, the hyper-violent South Korean thriller from director Park Chan-wook (Snowpiercer). Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is a sullen alcoholic arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. When he’s bailed out by a friend, he discovers a fate worse than jail when he’s abducted and kept in a cell with minimal human contact for 15 years.
One day, he’s suddenly granted his released, and he receives an ominous phone call from his mysterious captor. He offers Dae-Su a wager: if he can guess the reason for which he was imprisoned, his captor will commit suicide. If he can’t, he must murder the young chef that Dae-Su has fallen for. The former prisoner accepts the terms and begins killing anyone who stands in the way of him finding the answer and the man responsible. But he may not like what he discovers about himself along the way.
Oldboy is brimming with expertly choreographed bloodshed that falls neatly into a plot with a ton of intriguing twists and turns. It’s a punishing, relentless adrenaline ride for the filmgoer who thinks they’ve seen everything a revenge film can accomplish. Seriously, they haven’t.
14. Death Wish 3 (1985)
The Death Wish franchise featured Charles Bronson in his defining role as the violent vigilante Paul Kersey, spurred to go on a killing spree after his wife is murdered and his daughter is raped by a group of street thugs. Kersey extends his wrath of vengeance to anyone he witnesses involved in a criminal act.
But it’s the third installment in the franchise that remains the most memorable, because of its over-the-top violence, groan-inducing one-liners, and a maniacal gang leader with a reverse mohawk. It’s completely ridiculous, and therefore awesome.
Kersey is trying to help a crime-riddled community gain back control over their streets, but his vendetta again becomes personal after a friend’s wife is assaulted and a potential love interest is killed in a car explosion by the relentless thugs. Thus, he becomes a twisted community organizer, helping the elderly boobytrap their homes and going after the bad guys with military-grade weapons. Death Wish 3 has no redeeming social value. Watch it anyway.
13. Machete (2010)
Robert Rodriguez’s grindhouse homage Machete is a fever dream of exploitation tropes subverted for modern audiences. Danny Trejo stars at the titular character, a former Mexican Federale left for dead by the ruthless crime lord Rogelio Torrez (Steven Seagal) after a mission to stop a kidnapping goes haywire.
To add insult to injury, Torrez kidnaps Machete’s daughter and kills his wife. Broken and battered, Machete leaves Mexico, scraping by on manual labor jobs in Texas, until he meets sleazy government operative Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey.) Booth blackmails Machete into an assassination attempt on Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), a crooked politician planning to deport illegal immigrants. Machete’s fate goes from bad to worse when he learns his hit-job was designed to frame him, in an effort to further McLaughlin’s agenda.
His luck begins to change, however, when he realizes Booth has ties to Torrez, and he sets out to take his revenge upon them both. A combination of social satire, action flick and dark comedy, Machete is B-movie nirvana. Too bad the sequel, Machete Kills, was such a letdown.
12. Get Carter (1971)
One the darkest roles of Michael Caine’s career is that of Jack Carter, a nihilistic London gangster mourning his dead brother Frank, who presumably perished from a drunk driving accident. As soon as Frank’s body is buried, Carter snaps, refusing to believe the cause of death.
This leads him to unravel a web of deceit and cover-ups to discover the men responsible for Frank’s fate, and Carter’s ruthless pursuit of the truth leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. Facing off against a group of lethal mobsters, Carter goes all in, leaving no stone unturned. No act is too savage to quench his thirst, even if his own life is in jeopardy.
Get Carter was controversial upon its release, with many critics decrying its violence and Carter’s unapologetic sadism. This makes the film somewhat of a trailblazer, predating The Godfather and every ruthless pop culture anti-hero that has followed in its wake. It’s one of Caine’s most nuanced and memorable performances, and a must-see for fans of British crime films.
11. Leon: The Professional (1994)
This offshoot of Luc Besson’s spy thriller La Femme Nikita stars Jean Reno as the title character, a top-notch hit-man with a soft spot. After his neighbors are murdered by Norman Stansfield, a corrupt, pill-popping DEA agent (played in spectacularly over-the-top fashion by Gary Oldman), Leon takes their now orphaned daughter Matilda (Natalie Portman) under his wing. Despite his protests, Matilda demands that her new father figure train her in the art of murder so she can take vengeance for her parents, and the duo form an unlikely familial bond.
Leon: The Professional is an unusual revenge thriller, as it has a touching emotional center, with a hitman that has a secret, sensitive side and a young girl that’s far more ruthless than her demure appearance would suggest. And Stansfield is such a despicable, ruthless bad guy, Matilda’s blood lust feels completely justified. All of this builds into a thrilling, heart-pounding climax that balances violent action and compelling character development.
10. Ms. 45 (1981)
Ms. 45 has one of the most brutal first acts in film history, in which mute seamstress Thana (Zoë Tamerlis Lund) is sexually assaulted by two different men in unrelated instances. The emotional trauma causes Thana to snap, killing her second assailant with a blunt object in her apartment and chopping him to bits.
Becoming paranoid and convinced that all men are potential sexual predators, Thana goes on a shooting spree with the .45 pistol she took from her attacker, killing any man she deems a threat. Transforming from the hunted to the hunter, she becomes a serial killer against the male gender, unable to determine friend from foe.
Directed by Abel Ferrara, Ms. 45 is a unique film. Despite its exploitation roots, it never feels cheap or tawdry in its subject matter. Thana’s pain and anger are rendered powerfully by Lund, making her a character that earns your sympathy, even when she goes off the rails. Thought provoking, moving, and brutal as all hell, Ms. 45 subverts both action film stereotypes and audience expectations.
9. In Order of Disappearance (2014)
This Norwegian black action comedy (currently available on Netflix) stars Stellan Skarsgård as Nils, a soft-spoken snowplow driver who’s shocked when he discovers his son has died from a heroin overdose. Blinded by grief, Nils refuses to accept that his son was a drug addict. At first, friends and family subscribe that he is simply a parent in denial, but Nils discovers that there definitely was an element of foul play in his son’s death.
To satiate his rage and need for avenge his son’s murder, Nils tracks down the men responsible, disposing of them in clinical, dispassionate fashion. This sounds bleak on paper, but thanks to Hans Petter Moland’s oddball direction, Nils murderous rage has jolts of comedy, along with a villain that inspires more chuckles than fear.
An unfairly obscure film, In Order of Disappearance is one of the most unique films on this list, one that deserves a wider audience. (Be sure to keep a sharp eye out for a brief cameo from Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju.)
8. Lady Snowblood (1973)
In this Japanese thriller based on the manga series of the same name, Yuki (Meiko Kaji) is a woman that has literally been bred to be an instrument of revenge, after her father and brother were murdered and her mother is brutalized by a gang of criminals. Yuki is raised by a group of female prisoners well-trained in the art of murder, given orders by her dying mother to train her to be an assassin and avenge her family.
Yuki becomes a master of swordsmanship, and she dutifully sets out to destroy all those guilty of bringing harm to her family. Lady Snowblood was such a success in Japan that is spawned another killer sequel, Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance. It’s a film with beautiful compositions that give an artful elegance to the onscreen carnage. The character would prove deeply influential to director Quentin Tarantino, who based Kill Bill Volume 1 and 2 on the film series.
7. Blue Ruin (2013)
Rare is the revenge thriller that takes into account the emotional and tragic consequences of seeking violent retribution. That’s one of many aspects that makes director Jeremy Saulnier’s (Green Room) Blue Ruin such a powerful film.
Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is a drifter still mourning the murder of his parents. He’s a man on a mission, determined to kill the person responsible, who has recently been released from prison. Evan’s plan goes horribly haywire after he murders his target, discovering the man he killed might not be the actual person responsible for his parents’ death.
Making matters worse is Evan’s constant ineptness, leaving him vulnerable to retribution from his victim’s family, who choose to go to war rather than involve the authorities. Blue Ruin doesn’t offer any easy answers; between Evan’s sloppy antics and the plot’s meditation on violence, it’s a tragicomedy that leaves plenty of food for thought on the price of revenge.
6. The Limey (1999)
When ruthless British mobster Wilson (Terrence Stamp) discovers his daughter has perished in a car crash in California, he suspects foul play. He takes the first flight available to L.A. to seek out the sleazy music mogul Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) who he feels is responsible.
With a strength and fury that belies his age, Wilson (a recently released ex-con) interrogates, tortures and kills anyone who stands in his way. However, he leaves one associate to scramble back to Valentine with a warning: “Tell him I’m coming!”
Valentine tries to stop Wilson by hiring an assassin, but Wilson’s unrelenting anger and seemingly superhuman resolve (fitting for the actor that played General Zod) makes him a force of nature that will not be stopped until justice has been served. The truth, however, is not so simple, and Wilson must face some hard realities about his own wicked ways.
The Limey employs a unique narrative device, with director Stephen Soderbergh intercutting footage from Stamp’s 1967 film Poor Cow. These clips, which act as flashbacks, add a unique texture that elucidates on Wilson’s stoic, tortured demeanor.
5. Mad Max (1979)
The first entry in George Miller’s post-apocalyptic saga starred Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky, a highway patrol officer who turns into a cold-blooded avenger after his wife and child are mowed down by a psychotic biker gang.
Max has his work cut out for him. The gang he’s chasing are criminals of the worst order, murdering and raping with wild abandon — and they even burned his friend and fellow police officer Goose (Steve Bisley) alive. The group, led by the unhinged leader the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who would go on to play Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road) and craven sidekick Johnny The Boy, traverse the Australian Outback with Max in close pursuit.
Mad Max has stylized violence, absurdist humor, and insane car chases, but Max’s single-minded vengeance is the glue that ties it all together, especially in the ruthless finale. While The Road Warrior and Fury Road are grander, more visionary entries, the scrappy origin story that started it all is still a compelling thrill ride that mirrors John Wick’s own humble origins.
4. High Plains Drifter (1973)
Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this moody Western, playing The Stranger (a variation on The Man With No Name character he played in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, which were another notable influence on John Wick).
The Stranger arrives in a small frontier town, swiftly killing three men that foolishly taunt him. The mysterious figure’s ruthless gift for killing doesn’t go unnoticed by the townsfolk, and Sheriff Sam Shaw (Walter Barnes) offers him the job of protecting the town from two rival gangs of outlaws.
At first dismissive, The Stranger eventually acquiesces and helps the local citizens prepare for battle, even as he learns the town is partly complicit in the corruption that threatens him. This revelation, as well as some mysterious flashbacks, makes his stake in this game strangely personal. The Stranger isn’t just in it for money, but a twisted sense of vengeance, which he carries out in an almost supernatural fashion. His ultimate motive and origin are only fully revealed in the final frame of the film.
3. The Killer (1989)
Director John Woo’s gun-fu thriller was a massive influence on John Wick, as even a cursory viewing will reveal. Jeffrey (Chow Yun-Fat) is one of the best assassins in the business, blessed with an almost superhuman propensity for dishing out violent ends. Jeffrey’s gifts become a curse, however, after he accidentally blinds nightclub singer Jennie (Sally Yeh). Wracked with guilt, he decides to retire from his profession, accepting one last job simply to pay for an operation to restore Jennie’s eyesight.
His plans become complicated after he’s double-crossed, when the mobster that hired him decides to kill Jeffrey off rather than pay up. This results in yet another tragedy, as a child ends up getting caught in the crossfire. Jeffrey soon teams up with a police detective (Danny Lee) to take down the mob boss while honoring his pact to aid Jennie in her recovery.
The Killer features hyperactive kinetic action sequences involving gun-play and martial arts, not only influencing John Wick, but several other notable films, including The Matrix and its subsequent sequels (Keanu Reeves must love this movie). It still holds up as one of the best action films of its kind, spawning its own sub-genre in the process.
2. The Raid 2 (2014)
In this sequel to the game-changing 2011 Indonesian thriller The Raid: Redemption, police officer Rama’s (Iko Uwais) attempts to heal from the traumatic events of the first film, a violent encounter with a brutal drug lord and his minions. His best intentions are thwarted, however, when he learns that his public notoriety has made him and his family a target of the criminal underworld.
Feeling his only choice is to go undercover, Rama gets himself arrested, befriends a crime boss’ son, and infiltrates every layer of the criminal underworld to end their reign of terror for good, hoping to reclaim his identity. It’s not an easy task, however, as seemingly every bad guy he meets has lethal martial arts skills and deadly accuracy with all assortments of weaponry. Luckily for Rama, he’s got a skill set to match.
The Raid 2 has some of the most jaw-dropping, visceral, how-the-hell-did-they-do-that fight scenes in movie history. It’s actually physically exhausting watching the on-screen carnage. Any action fan worth their salt can’t help but be blown away.
1. Point Blank (1967)
John Wick director Chad Stahelski has never shied away from revealing this film’s influence over his own, saying, “One of the biggest inspirations for the film was Point Blank. We watched it on a loop in our office and there are a couple homages to that [in John Wick].”
Directed by John Boorman, the film stars Lee Marvin as Walker, a gangster left for dead on Alcatraz Island after his partner and friend Reese (John Vernon) shoots him and steals his loot. To make matters worse, Reese completes the ultimate betrayal of a friend by having an affair with Walker’s wife. Understandably, Walker is none too pleased with this situation, and he sets out to seek revenge. If only it were that simple: Reese is now a part of a shadowy criminal organization who want to kill Walker off for good, and they outnumber him greatly. Walker, however, is up to the task, and goes about taking care of business one bullet at a time.
Point Blank is a very stylish thriller, shot in a hallucinatory style, using a non-linear narrative long before directors like Quentin Tarantino made it hip. John Wick wasn’t the only film deeply indebted to Point Blank, of course — the film was remade in 1999, entitled Payback and starring Mel Gibson. We’d advise simply sticking with the original.
What films would you add to this list? Will John Wick go on to become the next great action franchise? Tell us in the comments.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is in theaters now.