The trope of a loner, either new in town or returning from years away, who is forced to confront the corruption and violence of the bad guys now in charge, is a familiar storyline in both film and TV.
Westerns such as Shane (1953) and the classic TV series Kung Fu (1972-75) revolved around this scenario, but it also plays out in a variety of other settings ranging from Ancient Rome (Gladiator, 2000) to outer space (Soldier, 1998). And all points between.
Amazon’s Jack Reacher adaptation is only the latest in this long line of wrong-righting protagonists and has been picking up positive reviews for beefy star Alan Ritchson’s depiction of the titular character.
In Lee Child’s novels, quintessential ‘stranger in town’ Reacher is a strapping 6ft 5’ man mountain; Ritchson is a more modest 6' 2", but skilful camera angles and his sheer bulk render him a near perfect physical incarnation of the books’ anti-hero.
Pocket-sized Tom Cruise (around 5’ 7”) essayed the role in two movies (in 2012 and 2016) and although the first picture was an entertaining enough thriller, the idea of the actor as the towering Reacher was as about as believable as a Capuchin monkey playing King Kong.
What better time to take a look at movies in a similar vein where the (usually) underestimated hero faces off against a horde of cruel adversaries?
Roadhouse (1989) MGM, Amazon Buy
Famed ‘I thought you'd be bigger’ bouncer/’cooler’ Dalton (an on-form Patrick Swayze) is hired to clean up Missouri’s punch-up prone Double Deuce club. There he finds love in the shape of physician Elizabeth 'Doc' Clay (Kelly Lynch) and a formidable enemy in local business magnate/crime lord Brad Wesley, superbly played by Ben Gazzara, who clearly relished the role.
Multiple bar fights, a throat-ripping and other beat downs occur before Dalton triumphs – although with some sad losses along the way. In the movie, Elliott’s character is frequently derided by the bad guys as an ‘old man’, it should be noted that the actor was only 44 years old when Roadhouse was shot.
The picture was followed by a mediocre straight-to-video sequel in 2006 and last November rumours surfaced that Jake Gyllenhaal was interested in playing Dalton in a remake under the aegis of Bourne Identity director Doug Liman.
The idea of remaking Roadhouse reminds me of Garrett’s comment in the picture: 'This place has a sign hangin' over the urinal that says, "Don't eat the big white mint.'''
Walking Tall (2004) Amazon Buy
Unlike the prospect of a Roadhouse remake, TV director Kevin Bray’s efficient take on 1973’s Walking Tall proved a worthwhile endeavour and a fun watch.
Loosely based on the true story of Sheriff Buford Pusser, Walking Tall sees Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as war hero Chris Vaughn, who returns to his hometown to find the local cedar mill replaced by a new casino and meth labs, under the control of childhood friend Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough). Aided by his trusty 2x4 lumber club, Vaughn begins his campaign to set the town to rights.
Nobody (2021) Sky Movies, Amazon Buy
To some, Nobody is merely a xerox copy of John Wick (2014), with a plot revolving around a retired assassin (this time a government contractor) dragged back into the life by a home invasion. And to a large degree they would be right, especially when the credits reveal John Wick scribe Derek Kolstad as the movie’s screenwriter.
But what distinguishes Nobody is the lighter tone and the assured performance of Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) as unlikely hardman Hutch Mansell. The picture also benefits from excellent music cues, with showtunes ‘I Gotta Be Me’ (Steve Lawrence) and Andy Williams’ version of ‘The Impossible Dream’ used to great effect
The Dark Valley (2014) Amazon Rent/Buy
Shades of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) in this German language ‘Western’ set in the Austrian Alps of the late 19th century.
Mysterious stranger Greider (Sam Riley – SS:GB) arrives in a remote snowbound town to confront Old Man Brenner (the late Hans-Michael Rehberg) and his six obnoxious sons, who insist on claiming the right of Primae noctis at every wedding in the district.
Slow-moving and with a plotline that is easy to guess, The Last Valley is nonetheless a great looking film, one that passes the time nicely on a wet and windy Sunday evening.
Taken (2008) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy
The movie that kickstarted a slew of similar pictures, Taken is a fast-moving, bone-crunching thriller that clocks in at just 90 minutes.
Former Green Beret and CIA officer Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) demonstrates his ‘particular set of skills’ when he mercilessly pursues an Albanian sex trafficking ring who kidnapped his daughter (Maggie Grace) on her first European holiday. Plenty of expertly choreographed action and satisfying payback as Mills works his way through the ranks of the gang.
The less said about the two lacklustre sequels and dull TV spin-off the better though.
The role led to a whole new stage in Neeson’s career as an action hero of mature years, one that has become increasingly monotonous for viewers, and probably the actor himself, although it undoubtedly pays the rent.
Peppermint (2018) – full movie free to watch on YouTube, Amazon Rent/Buy
Described in The Hollywood Reporter as ‘Death Wish on steroids’ Peppermint finds Taken director Pierre Morel in familiar territory as we follow Riley North (Jennifer Garner) on her quest for vengeance against the drug cartel that killed her husband and ten-year-old daughter.
A corrupt justice system results in the killers getting off scot-free and Riley committed to a psychiatric ward. Fortunately Garner escapes, thence biding her time to put a plan into action that will take down the cartel and expose police/court corruption.
Oh, and she fits in getting revenge on nasty former neighbour Peg (Pell James), who ruined her daughter’s planned birthday party on the day of the slayings.
The Equalizer (2014) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy
Antoine Fuqua’s updated movie reboot of the 1980s Edward Woodward action thriller series is an origin story of sorts, where retired DIA (Defence Intelligence Agency) specialist Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) goes to head-to-head with the Russian mob in Boston after they savagely beat up a teenage prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) he befriended.
Things go pretty much by the numbers, with McCall proving more than a match for the gangsters, including a tense scene in the Home Mart hardware superstore where he works, with a nail gun put to especially good use.
The picture was popular enough to spawn a sequel in 2018 (and another in development), The Equalizer has a TV sibling (CBS, 2021-), where Queen Latifah plays ex-CIA agent Robyn McCall.
Haywire (2011) – full movie free to watch on YouTube, IMDb TV, Plex, Amazon Rent/Buy
MMA fighter Gina Carano made her big-screen debut in Steven Soderbergh’s atypical all-star Black Ops thriller, where she plays betrayed private contractor Mallory Kane who mistakenly believes she’s fighting on the side of the angels.
Slimy boss and ex-boyfriend Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) sets her up for the murder of a journalist Kane single-mindedly decides to take out Ken and his well-connected backers, including corrupt government official Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas). Haywire also boasts a great score composed by frequent Soderbergh collaborator David Holmes.
The lone female assassin movie has become an increasingly crowded field, with Jolt (2021), Kate (2021), The Protégé (2021), The Serpent (2021), Ava (2020), The Rhythm Section (2020), and ANИA (2019) all released over the last few years.
Shooter (2007) Amazon Rent/Buy
A well-constructed and watchable thriller leavened with enjoyable touches of humour, Shooter sees retired Gunnery Sergeant Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) inveigled into giving his expert advice on how to prevent an imminent assassination attempt on the US president. But of course, it’s a set-up with a conveniently dead Swagger to be blamed for the crime.
But they have underestimated Bob Lee who manages to escape the trap and turn the tables on the evildoers, including repellent US Senator Charles Meachum (well played by the late Ned Beatty) and operative Jack Payne, an especially creepy Elias Koteas (Crash).
Akin to Jack Reacher, Swagger finds unlikely allies, including FBI Special Agent Nick Memphis (Michael Peña), his army spotter’s widow Sarah (Kate Mara) and retired firearms expert Mr Rate, an amusing turn from former Band drummer Levon Helm.
Like Taken, the success of Shooter resulted in an inferior TV spin-off.
Get Carter (1971) Amazon Rent/Buy
There is enough evidence in Mike Hodges’ classic crime thriller to say that Carter (Michael Caine) is far more a villain than hero.
But…despite his callousness, indifference to human life, sadism, arrogance and willingness to inflict deadly violence, Carter is the closest thing to a ‘white knight’ in this gritty Tyneside tale.
After all, he avenges both his murdered brother and sexually abused niece Doreen, as well as putting evil pornographer Kinnear (John Osborne) behind bars for a long stretch (we presume).
And by dying at the end, Carter is semi-redeemed, in that he can no longer commit more, less worthy rampages in the future.
If your thirst for this kind of ‘lone justice’ movie is yet to be sated, you may want to check out Death Wish (1974 and 2018), Sergio Leone’s ‘Man with No Name’ series, the Django films, Last Man Standing (1996), The Brave One (2007) and Johnny Hallyday’s unjustly neglected Vengeance (2009).