Liam Neeson and Keanu Reeves managed mid-career turnarounds by switching from earnest character pieces to hard-hitting action in the Taken and John Wick franchises, prompting many a former A-list leading man to consider similar roles … not always with top-flight results, as evinced by Sean Penn’s The Gunman. Antonio Banderas has recently become almost as busy in direct-to-DVD action material as, say, Danny Trejo or Steven Seagal, always turning in decent performances but stuck in a shot-in-Bulgaria-pretending-to-be-the-US rut that imposes a kind of ceiling on his chances of cashing in big.
Acts of Vengeance is intense, earnest and nonsensical – the late-in-the-film revelation of the solution to the mystery of who killed the hero’s wife and daughter isn’t much of a surprise to the audience, but comes as a shock to characters who really ought to be privy to vital information withheld from us – but Banderas is terrific and surprisingly credible for a fiftysomething in scenes where he beats up on multiple vicious opponents. It opens with ‘Act IV’ and seething Frank Valera (Antonio Banderas) hearing a coughing cook in a diner then barging into the kitchen to beat the guy up … which makes him look like a crazy loon (and racist to boot since the guy is black) in a freeze frame before we start flashing back to the all-too-familiar tale of a white collar guy (Frank’s a bigshot lawyer, who talks 80,000 words a day but only means three of them) bereft by a seemingly senseless crime who goes the Death Wish route when the cops (Johnathon Schaech, Karl Urban) prove to be useless. An early cameo from Robert Forster as the angry father-in-law establishes that Frank was formerly the sort of slick, get-the-killer-off-on-a-technicality shyster many people would want revenge on … but he’s so focused on his weird philosophical approach to investigation and vigilantism that he never bothers to make up a list of suspects. Instead, he has a spell as a drunken punchbag in underground cage fights then goes through a training montage – featuring director Isaac Florentine as his karate sensei – to become a human weapon.
Returning to the bad part of town where his family were killed (noting but not following up on the ‘why would she roll her window down?’ clue), he gets into tsuris with the Russian mafia and is stabbed in the thigh by an underage hooker … crashing though a bookshop window, he has to stanch his wounds with a handy paperback of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and then reads the book, which prompts him to take a vow of silence (except for internal monologue voice-over narration) until his quest is over. This is a striking notion, like something out of a 1970s acid western, and there’s a nod to how not talking improves his ability to listen … but it also means that, as an amateur detective, his method has to involve beating people up then showning them a happy snap of his dead womefolk while looking into the suspect’s eyes to intuit guilt or innocence. On his crusade, he bumps into a nurse (Paz Vega) who has her own troubles with the Mob but can at least sew up his wounds while he does his best Punisher impersonation – he also inherits a handy clue-sniffing dog from some woeful hardnuts, in a neat sequence that shows dogs understand the clichés of action movies better than minor baddies played by tattooed stunt men.
In the non-theatrical Banderas oeuvre, I marginally prefer the Die Hard ripoff Security – mostly for the Ben Kingsley bad guy performance – but Acts of Vengeance is solid enough to make me inclined to give Black Butterfly, Fun Shy and Bullet Head (aka Unchained) a look.