Film Review: Acts of Vengeance

Family man Antonio Banderas takes on the Russian mafia in this conventional revenge thriller, originally titled 'Stoic.'
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Celebrity defense lawyer Frank Valera (Antonio Banderas) is famous for his silver-tongued glibness, which has kept many a not-so-good guy out of jail. His dedication to the law has put a strain on his marriage to Susan (Cristina Serafini), but their tween daughter Olivia (Lilian Blankenship) adores him—witness her decision to sing The Everly Brothers' "(All I Have to Do Is) Dream"—her Daddy's favorite—at the school talent show he can't tear himself away from work to attend.

Enter Frank's comeuppance: Olivia and Susan are murdered on the way home. Worse still, his father-in-law (Robert Forster) tells Frank in no uncertain terms that their deaths are his fault: He's dedicated his career to helping lowlife creeps escape the jail terms they deserve, and now his family is dead at the hands of people just like them. Guilt, combined with the fact that police (embodied by the sleek Johnathon Schaech) talk a good game but seem singularly clueless when it comes to investigating the murders, sends Frank on his own mission. He’s aided by a sympathetic nurse (Paz Vega, of the once-notorious Sex and Lucia); a sweet-faced TSA-trained German Shepherd he rescues from dog-abusing thugs (because if you want to make a bad guy look even worse, have him kick a dog), and a copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, which leads him to take a vow of silence (which doesn't include lengthy voiceovers) until his mission is complete—to learn exactly what happened to his family and make those responsible pay.

The film's advertising tagline—"Payback speaks louder than words"—says most of what there is to say about Acts of Vengeance. Even Death Wish—Brian Garfield's novel, as opposed to any of its numerous movie iterations, probably including the upcoming Bruce Willis remake—is clearer on the subject of what's gained and what's lost when law-abiding people take the law into their own hands. The rest is that as a down-and-dirty action movie it's less then successful—it works better as a weirdly skewed fairytale whose battered hero regularly stumbles across exactly the right text, tool or fellow traveler to help him on his quest.

Banderas is the movie's greatest asset; age hasn't exactly treated him well, but it's had its way with his once-pretty face and that helps lend some weight to the film's first half, which is mainly devoted to Frank's largely successful quest to punish himself for not having been a better husband and father. The film's action scenes are stronger then its dramatic ones and plausibility falls by the wayside more than once, starting with the non-specific U.S. setting that just doesn't look American—the movie was shot in Bulgaria. But it's brisk, hits its clichéd notes efficiently, and that dog is a charmer.

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