Horror/thriller The Retaliators is a cavalcade of blatant and unabashed toxic machismo that, for better or for worse, takes aim at issues of violence, state punishment, and vigilantism.
You all know the type: the kid who took gym class way too seriously and would mock you if you didn’t wear the right clothes, listen to the right music, or act the right way. The guy who had an extremely narrow and restricted view of what masculinity should be, and projected his own insecurities about his own identity and fears of inadequacy upon others in order to build for himself some sort of facade of power and strength. The kind of person who was just a walking Monster Energy flat-brim hat and thought you were a wimp for not liking Five Finger Death Punch. Now imagine if that guy made a thriller/horror movie, and in a nutshell you get The Retaliators.
The movie follows a pastor, John Bishop (Michael Lombardi) (Yes really, the clergyman’s name is “Bishop”), who, after the brutal murder of his daugher, Sarah (Katie Kelly), searches for answers, only to discover the dangerous underworld of crime and other horrors lurking within his own community.
There’s a lot for me to say about this movie, very little of which is good. Let’s start with the writing, because that’s one of the biggest offenders here. First of all, the pacing is all over the place, to the point where I’m not sure The Retaliators knew what it wanted to be. Its opening scene is a standard horror movie opening: teens are lost on a road trip in a strange town, their car breaks down, and bad things happen. Then, this scene is followed by an hour of a tragedy/crime thriller plot seemingly disconnected from the opening scene. It took me a long time to realize the opening was actually in medias res, but you wouldn’t know that, especially considering the movie doesn’t do anything to make you aware of this; it doesn’t even give you an “X Weeks Earlier” subtitle or anything, and the primary characters on which the opening focuses aren’t even a part of the actual plot; they’re just disposable nameless characters.
The dialogue at its best is wooden, and at its worst is groan-worthy. Look, I’m not a prude. I’m a Tarantino fan, so I don’t mind profanity. But this movie uses the word “f*ck” like a crutch; the villains’ dialogue sounds like it was written by a tween who just discovered the word and is trying to be edgy by shoehorning it into every sentence possible.
And the direction is not doing the actors any favors, as there are some simply baffling decisions in here. For example, there’s a scene where a character is giving a monologue in a low and calm gravely tone before a sudden outburst of anger and screaming as he breaks a glass. He then goes right back to his calm and gravely state before building back up to another crescendo of anger. The scream, however, looks like it was spliced in after the shoot, as if the idea for the character to scream and break something in the middle of the monologue when he’s calm instead of at the end when he’s livid was a last minute editing decision instead of an intentional premeditated one. The entire effect is disorienting and laughable as you can only blurt at the screen “Dude, that’s not how real people act!”
The movie’s methods of characterization are also lacking: first of all, just about every woman is fridged solely to give the male characters motivations, because every dude in this movie needs to have both a dead wife and dead daughter, apparently (Also quick note, it just dawned on me while writing this review that every single female character in the main cast is white and blonde. Like, they all look like the same person. I cannot think of a single named female character who doesn’t look like a Fox News anchor, highlighting to me the sheer interchangeability and immateriality of women in this movie). The way characterization is delivered tends to fall in one of two camps: the first is through stoic grunts and punching, the second is through flashbacks. Heck, one character even got a flashback within a flashback that takes you right out of the plot and leaves you thinking that surely there was a better way to flesh out this character than just an info dump. I suppose in both cases, the filmmakers are showing and not telling, so points to them, I guess. I would still struggle to describe any character as having “depth.”
Speaking of characters, let’s talk about the people bringing them to life, because the acting is… Let’s be nice and say “uneven.” Remember when I brought up Five Finger Death Punch in my opening paragraph? Well, that was intentional, because the entire band is in this movie. And not as themselves either, they’re all in here with named roles; they have names like “Fang” and “Vic,” and I can’t help but wonder if they picked these names themselves. They play exactly the kind of people you’d expect them to play: preening tough guys who love brawling, boobs, bikes, beer, and bloodshed. Jacoby Shaddix of the band Papa Roach is in this too, though instead of a biker gangster, he plays a serial killer/rapist. Hell, they’re not even the only musicians in this movie: several prominent figures of the current rock and metal scenes make appearances, including Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe, Doc Coyle of Bad Wolves, and Spencer Charnas of Ice Nine Kills. But at least their parts are quick cameos and not large named parts, though it does feel like they’re only here so the film can say “Hey! Look at the famous people!” Anyways, in regards to the musicians with actual named parts, there’s definitely a reason Mr Shaddix and the FFDP crew chose music instead of a career in acting.
I bring up these guys because the actual film actors in this movie don’t fare much better than the musicians that were brought in. I have to imagine that this is due to the direction, because there are several scenes where an actor has an awkward line read, but it’s kept in. Like, were the filmmakers under a strict time crunch or budget? Could they not have gotten just a couple more takes?
Jeezum crow, I’m over one thousand words into this review and I haven’t even begun talking about my least favorite part of this movie: the theming. The Retaliators has some garbage views on society and on people, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them. One of the main takeaways from the movie is the idea that violence is effective and good. John Bishop’s character “growth,” after everything he goes through, leads to him resorting to using violence as the best way to solve his problems. Not just in situations of self defense, mind you, but as a means of dealing with obnoxious people who are mean to him in public. And the movie frames this like it’s a good thing, like a willingness to punch a rude asshole in front of both your daughter and his son is a desirable quality to have. This highlights the whole movie’s attitude towards aggression and punishment as a whole, as it takes on a tough-on-crime stance that would make Reagan and Clinton proud: the movie pretty clearly disputes strawman arguments for mercy, acting as if folks to their left wouldn’t want child murders and rapists punished by the law.
This final point about theming will delve into some spoilers, so if that bothers you, go ahead and skip to the bottom. Now then, whether The Retaliators meant to or not, it showcases some really gross ideas regarding mentally ill people. A twist that comes about two thirds of the way through the movie is that Jed (Marc Menchaca), a detective working the case, captures and tortures criminals, turning them into shells of their former selves, making them indistinguishable from zombies. In fact, in the film’s credits on IMDB, these characters are called “subhumans.” Characters that have experienced severe physical and mental trauma to the point where they are denied their humanity are considered less than human. Look, I’m not defending what these characters did prior to this fate, but the implication here is hard to ignore; the implication that the mentally ill are “subhumans.” And even if the intended idea here is that “murderers and other criminals are monsters,” that directly contradicts the other theme that violence is good; this movie’s ideologies are inconsistent and erratic.
Is there anything positive I can say about The Retaliators? I guess the lighting wasn’t too dark, which is something I’ve complained about many times for other films, so that’s good. There was some good use of Chekhov’s gun, in that when the filmmakers plant certain ideas or small plot devices early on, they would be used at some point in the plot. Spencer Charnas and Tommy Lee both seemed to be having fun in their cameos, so good for them, I guess. But none of that is nearly enough to wash the taste of the rest of the movie out of my mouth. Honestly, part of me is surprised that The Retaliators didn’t call me a “snowflake” before trying to push me down and take my lunch money. In this review, I’ve used the images of middle and high school very intentionally: this movie feels juvenile. It feels like a first draft written by an angsty schoolyard bully, and unless that’s the kind of thing that appeals to you for some reason, you need not bother with The Retaliators.
The Retaliators premiered at Screamfest on October 12, 2021.
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