TRUE VENGEANCE is a 1997 Daniel Bernhardt movie that I bought specifically because it was written by Kurt Johnstad. I think I was looking him up because he wrote ATOMIC BLONDE, and I remembered that he was the guy who wrote 300, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE and ACT OF VALOR. I saw all of those in the theater and liked all of them, and it turns out his only other movie is this earlier DTV one that never even came out on DVD in the U.S. It’s directed by David Worth (KICKBOXER, LADY DRAGON 1 and 2), and I think you can understand why that combination of people made it something I needed to see.
Benhardt plays Griffin, who was a Navy SEAL and then a hired killer of some kind but after the death of his wife he quit the life to take care of his daughter Emily (Tessa Sugay, “Club Girl (uncredited),” TOKYO DRIFT, “Dancer (uncredited)” THE SOCIAL NETWORK). After a brief, incoherent sniper prologue we meet him cutely joking around with his daughter pretending he doesn’t know it’s her birthday. So yes, she is going to be kidnapped.
He has an older guy he calls his best friend named Sam (Harrison Young, Ryan as an old man in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), who I think runs a garage and kind of seems like he could be the landlord like the guy in ROAD HOUSE? He’s involved in a great bit of b-movie flavor when he’s doing a crossword puzzle, asking for a word for “something that haunts.” Griffin suggests ‘ghost,’ but Sam says it has to be four letters, and just then a scary dude named Adachi (Keo Woolford, “Airport Worker,” GODZILLA) steps in looking for Griffin, who dramatically declares that “The Griffin you knew… is dead.”
I was so excited because of course the four letter word for something that haunts is ‘past.’ He’s being haunted by his past! Unfortunately at the end of the scene Griffin explains this to Sam, shaving 2 or 3 coolness points off of the scene. I would’ve preferred either they said nothing and had confidence in our ability to figure it out, or Sam thought about it for a beat and then we saw him filling it in.
Griffin’s old boss (George Cheung, THE KILLER ELITE, THE EXTERMINATOR, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, ROBOCOP 2, FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, HIGH VOLTAGE, U.S. SEALS II, SUCKER FREE CITY), wants him to kill somebody as part of a Japanese takeover of an American corporation involved in some kind of A.I. thing they call “virtual memory.” Griffin refuses, of course, so they take Emily. There’s a scene where he runs around in a panic looking for her, and I laughed because he says “Did you see Emily? A little girl?” to a group of little girls. But the bad guys send him a VHS tape of Emily unconscious, hooked up to an oxygen machine. This seemed even weirder way later when I caught on that this bad guy is her grandfather, the father of Griffin’s dead wife. I guess he had his own daughter killed for marrying Griffin and disgracing the family or the Yakuza or something.
His name is Minushoto, by the way, so Griffin keeps asking people “Where is Minushoto?” and I could not stop thinking that he was pronouncing ‘Minnesota’ weird.
Anyway, he takes the job, sneaking in to choke out a CEO. There’s some good tension as he slinks around like a ninja, running into the room and hiding behind the desk while the dude is on a phone call. But a secretary (Tanya Newbould, BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY) is in the other room talking on the phone with her young son. It seems like Griffin is about to sneak up on her, but then you realize it’s another guy wearing the same all black, turtleneck-tucked-into-belted-slacks look.
This is dumb but I didn’t understand at first that they were in on the job together. I thought they just showed up at the same place wearing the same outfit. Anyway, Griffin stops the guy due to his rule against killing “women and children.”
Well, he tried to cooperate with Minushoto, but now he decides it’s time to track down the bastard and rescue Emily from him. But police detective Bill Emory (Jonathan Lutz, TRAXX) doesn’t know the nuances of Griffin’s situation and is on his trail just thinking he’s with the yakuzas. And there’s a good photo of his face because although he turned off the security camera when he snuck in, the secretary explains a very sophisticated system they have called “a second camera.”
There’s also an FBI special agent or something named Lieutenant Kada Wilson (Beverly Johnson, THE METEOR MAN), who shows up in town and does understand what’s going on, but wants to bust Griffin before the Yakuza kill him.
It’s a good movie for weird, sleazy hangouts. First is the tattoo shop that has shiny black streamers (film? video tape?) hanging everywhere. A woman with a shirt but no pants is laying on the table getting a lower back tattoo, and a bunch of muscle dude mercs and skinheads who kinda seem like villains on the Rambo cartoon sit around reading newspapers until Griffin comes in to fight them. And then there’s the bar that just looks like an unfurnished warehouse where rich dudes in suits sit at little tables and busty dancers in only g-strings dance to a techno song that keeps saying “Give it to me. Give it to me” behind a fence and next to kickstanded motorcycles
Griffin, whose secondary apartment has a framed photomosaic of Abraham Lincoln on the wall, gets serious enough to switch over to Chow Yun Fat mode: he puts on a black duster and starts going into these Yakuza affiliated establishments to start shootouts, sometimes in slow motion and always involving more than one two pistoled sideways leap. There’s at least one gratuitous somersault – I always respect when action involves tumbling.
But he can’t save everyone. Obviously if you have an extraneous old man friend he’s either gonna get tortured for information or killed. In this case, Griffin carjacks a taxi and roars home just in time to see Sam get blown up, and then he walks up to the burning corpse like Luke Skywalker finding Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.
Griffin comes after Adachi, whose chest is covered in Yakuza ink except for a strip down the middle, and he tattoos a message for Minushoto onto him. That’s pretty Punisher-style brutal and we’re kept in suspense about what he wrote on him, except when it’s finally revealed it looks like it’s Japanese characters. I wasn’t sure what it meant. Whatever it is, it’s shameful enough that Adachi commits harekiri, which his bosses stand and watch dispassionately. I feel like they should’ve at least backed up a step to protect their nice suits.
Sort of late in the game the movie introduces a villain just credited as “The Specialist” (Miles O’Keeffe, who played Tarzan in TARZAN THE APE MAN, Ator in ATOR, THE FIGHTING EAGLE, THE BLADE MASTER and IRON WARRIOR, and Dracula in WAXWORK), one of those guy-he-used-to-work-with-who-is-evil-and-holds-it-over-him-that-he’s-good-now type antagonists. At first he wears a suit, which looks very ‘90s-henchman with his long hair/ponytail, but since he folds origami cranes that he leaves everywhere as a calling card and/or threat, saying he’s trying to fold a thousand of them, I’m sure he’s supposed to be another John Woo homage. But he switches to leather jacket and jeans by the time he’s meeting Griffin (dressed up as fellow kidnapped-daughter-rescuer John Matrix from COMMANDO) in a Japanese garden for the climactic sword fight. It’s a pretty good one with a finishing move that involves an arm twist, catching a gun, dropkicking and then firing the stolen gun in mid-air. It’s elaborate and exaggerated in a particular way you don’t tend to see in American productions besides HARD TARGET. I love it.
This is the level of low budget action where the dialogue and its delivery can be too stiff to make the cliches go down without a laugh. But there are also times when they put extra spice on it, like when a cop’s dying words are “I… I had tickets… to the Kings game tonight,” or when Griffin insults The Specialist by squashing his one-thousandth crane like a bug and saying, “You don’t believe in that shit, do you?” And I don’t know which category to put it in when he’s re-litigating the murder of his wife while trying to rescue his daughter and yells “EMILY DISHONORED NO ONE!”
By the end he doesn’t seem like as good of a father, because he chops grandpa’s hand off right in front of Emily. Then he stands and clearly plans to fucking behead him in front of her, but changes his mind – not for her sake, but because he’d rather let him bleed to death.
She seems fine, though, and they flee the scene as fugitives in the late Sam’s sailboat (called Kathleen – I wonder if that was his wife or something?)
This movie is almost like 87ELEVEN: ORIGINS. You got Johnstad, who wrote ATOMIC BLONDE, and Bernhardt, who’s a bad guy in JOHN WICK, ATOMIC BLONDE and BIRDS OF PREY, plus JOHN WICK director Chad Stahelski is the fight coordinator, and WICK/BIRDS fight coordinator John Eusebio also does stunts in it. Unrelated, but notable, the score is by Stephen Edwards, who went on to do almost all of Isaac Florentine’s movies.
If you’re not familiar with Bernhardt, he’s a Swiss martial artist and model who, after co-starring with Jean-Claude Van Damme in a Versace commercial, was cast as the lead in BLOODSPORT 2. For several years he had a career much like other sub-Van-Dammes, with obscure vehicles like PERFECT TARGET and G2 supplemented by a role on Mortal Kombat: Conquest. Luckily a part as an agent in THE MATRIX RELOADED hooked him up with what became the 87Eleven action team and he started popping up all over the place: PARKER, JOHN WICK, LOGAN, ATOMIC BLONDE (with the keys stuck in his face), the episode of Barry that everyone tells me I have to watch, most recently BIRDS OF PREY and a Cadillac commercial I saw during the Oscars.
He’s gotten very good at playing these bad guys with little dialogue, but it’s fun to go back and watch when he was playing what could’ve been Van Damme characters but with an accent that sounds weirder to my American ears. Somehow his voice reminds me of Christophe Waltz. He looks tall and pretty handsome and is clearly good at martial arts and guns and shit, but he seems a little too odd to quite fit into the generic trenchcoat-and-motorcycle tough guy box they initially tried to put him in. I kind of like that conflict, especially in a movie this loaded with action and laughs (I don’t think they’re intentional, but I’ll take ’em).
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.