On one level, I naturally agreed. Every film – whether we like the story or not – tells a tale. Right? It takes the audience on a journey through a series of related events – all involving interconnected characters – and inevitably delivers us somewhere, to some destination. Where I pushed back, however, was that I believed some fables were crafted for purely entertainment purposes and, thus, didn’t really mean all that much. Were this the case, any messaging a viewer took from it was clearly a secondary consideration of the cast and crew … so why make any intellectual fuss over what it all may or may not mean?
When the instructor argued with me further, I tried coming at the topic from another point of view. For example, the professor – this being the 1980’s – had an incredible artistic appreciation for a certain war film (I won’t name it, as it doesn’t really matter) of the time and was constantly (constantly!) referencing it, its message, and its metaphors at every opportunity. So, one day I mentioned his favorite war lick, and I explained how I took a different meaning from the ending than he did … so – based entirely on his experience versus mine – who’s to say which is the better interpretation?
Well, he was the one paid to provide opinions – not I – so, in his estimation, his measured analysis mattered more than mine. Ouch.
In any event, I’ve long argued that, when a film seeks to ultimately entertain those who buy a ticket, there’s still a respectability to that process … and today I’m arguing that same point on behalf of The Retaliators (2021). It’s a Horror/Thriller from the directing team of Samuel Gonzalez Jr., Michael Lombardi (who also headlines it), and Bridget Smith. While the flick flirts with some mixed messages about revenge and redemption, it inevitably seeks to amuse. To scare. To get your blood pumping. Nothing more. Nothing less.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com citation:
“An upstanding pastor uncovers a dark and twisted underworld as he searches for answers surrounding his daughter’s brutal murder.”
If you’re looking for your film to definitively say something about the greater world-at-large, then you’re going to have to be much more specific than Darren Geare and Jeff Allen Geare were in their screenplay for The Retaliators, an impressive outing that relies heavily on pushing some very predictable moral buttons but delivers a seemingly never-ending assortment of bloody showdowns in its second half. Each and every set-up that preaches against violence ends up adding to the body count; before you know it, this broken man-of-faith looks less and less like Jimmy Stewart and more and more like John Rambo.
Much of this is owed to the world as created by the Geares and their team of directors (three are listed in the credits).
Though I don’t know for certain, I’d like to think that everyone involved consciously did this in order to strip us culturally back to a time when a bit of Old Testament-style justice (“an eye for an eye”) truly meant something. It wasn’t just a saying, just something folks who went to church talked about. In fact, it was how several generations of us were raised, and some might argue that its loss from the wider moral discussion may explain why there’s so much wrong with society today. I’ve no way to know if that’s what I’m to deduce from all of this chaos because no one says so, certainly not even our once humble lead Pastor Bishop (played effectively by Lombardi) whom we see telling a white lie to his parishioners about how he used the word of God to defuse a conflict over a Christmas tree. (Truth: he didn’t, deliberately misleading them as to the efficacy of his sermons … and he has a vastly different solution come similar circumstances once all is said and done.)
That’s why I encourage folks not to look too deeply into The Retaliators. It’s a fool’s errand if ever there were.
Instead, just enjoy it as a good old-fashioned testament to guilt-free wickedness. It’s a mildly daring ‘what would you do if’ story, and it works very well on that level. Sure, you may find some secret message hidden in here, but I’m likely able to dissect it with footage from the very next sequence … or the one thereafter … or maybe even the one when Bishop uses his youngest daughter’s bracelet to pluck the eye out of his would-be assassin. Do you really think that sequence has deeper meaning? Or is it not just the coolest thing you’ve watched today? Or how about that murder-by-wood-chipper moment? You think the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences wants to craft a special recognition Oscar for that scene or just let it be the crowd-pleasing, blood-spurting finish it was likely meant to be?
If anything, The Retaliators biggest problem might very well be that it doesn’t quite know what it truly wants to be in its first half, almost as if the storytellers were hedging their bets with a protracted set-up hoping to rope more folks into their seats before the ample and obvious bloodlust begins. Once it does, we’re in pure Horror territory here, so any resemblance to highbrow didactic filmmaking has really gone out the window. It’s much closer to a pop culture fairy tale – with wicked pulp sensibilities – than it is a (ahem) “meaningful viewing experience.”
Think what you will, but folks didn’t flock to repeat showings of The Exorcist (1973) to learn how to perform an exorcism or confront their demons. They did it to be scared sh#tless vicariously.
Nothin’ wrong with that.
Hey now: I’m not going to get into a debate with anyone over what subject matter might be best left alone, but I will say that The Retaliators revels in the excesses of its own creation very effectively from the outset right up until its fitting last scene. Though some might try to attach greater meaning to the gratuitousness, I find it refreshing when storytellers occasionally strip away all of the pretense of ‘being about something’ and, instead, just swing for the fences with entertainment. I didn’t learn anything from this one. I just marveled at its bloody-knuckled efficiency.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Better Noise Films provided me with complimentary screener access to The Retaliators (2021) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.