It’s not entirely unimaginable that a horror film would take on many of its elements through an action film lens. This especially goes for Better Noise Films’s latest Arrow Video FrightFest rollout, The Retaliators, written by brothers Darren and Jeff Geare; The providence of there being a scene early in the film where our protagonist, John Bishop (Michael Lombardi) alludes to action heroes being unpragmatic when talking to his daughters following an incident with an unruly character while buying a Christmas tree, rose interest on my end, while certainly it not being the only time a film’s script invoked this kind of mild self-awareness.
Nevertheless, what you get in the latest directorial feat from co-helmers Bridget Smith and Samuel Gonzalez Jr., is a film that inevitably speaks to the portion of the Taken crowd that’s also seen its fair share of Kim Jee-woon (I Saw The Devil) and Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead) thrillers, and assortments of elevated horror therein, topped with sprinkles of heavy metal music fandom to illuminate the narrative. Even more intriguing is the tragic real-life story that occured in 2004, and its chosen service to inspire the Geare brothers to tell a story that compels both with escapist thrills, and a tangible and chilling spotlight on unhealed trauma.
Such is the fitting attribution for a lead character in the aforementioned Bishop, a devout pastor and father to two children, whose life is suddenly upended by the death of his oldest daughter, Sarah (Katie Kelly). Just several degrees of seperation from this arc is a local a crimeboss named Otto (Robert Knepper), working to maintain a truce between motorcycle gangs while in search for the murderous brother of one of their own who’s since gone missing along with a sack of drugs and a bag full of cash. With Bishop visibly struggling to cope and eager to find Sarah’s killer, an affable and bearded fellow by the name of Jed emerges to make Bishop an offer that he couldn’t possibly refuse. It’s an offer that will ultimately push Bishop to the edge of his own moral compass and force him to make life-and-death choices that could also mean betraying his very faith, or embracing his newfound sense of worth and redemption.
With the kind of story The Retaliators is, it arguably sets an interesting extension to discussions about the Bible and matters of interpretation therein; The film starts off with a bleak, sweeping drone shot over a dark, wooded area, and Bishop’s voice lamenting on questions of sin, and when exactly do they turn a good man “bad”. The blurred line that discerns good from evil stands dead center in The Retaliators, as we watch Bishop descend into spates of madness midway in the film, unable to connect with his youngest daughter and eventually cornered into confronting his own hideousness later on in the film.
The most interesting character to follow from this point on is the role of Jed, played by Marc Menchaca who also turned heads last year as the scene-stealing, maniacal kidnapper who squares off with his captive in John Hyams’s Alone. Again, Menchaca is handed a role that appears friendly and approachable enough to not warrant too many questions, at least until the menacing begins and you see how it connects to the morbid, horrific twist that culminates Bishop’s arc going into the finale.
Guaranteed, metalheads will get a little something out of seeing some of their musician faves in key co-starring roles, including Five Finger Death Punch’s Ivan Moody, and especially Papa Roach’s Jacoby Shaddix to name a few. The latter will surely turn heads as a key figure in how things come to a head between Bishop and Jed, topped off with a twist that sees our reluctant hero fending off a horde of feral, cannibalistic psychopaths, once caged only to be freed amidst the calamity of the final act, followed by a ferocious, mad killer named Ram, played by Joseph Gatt (Banshee, Z Nation).
Indeed, Smith and Gonzalez Jr. start things off with a suitably gory absurdity as a foreword to the story with a bit of shock value: There’s a beheading, and a man covered in blood as he tries to rescue a woman in what looks like the worst possible way you can imagine. It’s a silly, fun scene to kick off to as the film takes a while to get its pace going after that, although you’re definitely not in for a slog. Seething with intensity from a score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein to foundate the film’s pulsating soundtrack, and featuring stunt sequences by Seth Allyn Austin and Graham Hooper, and solid cast performances led by Lombardi and Menchaca to start, The Retaliators offers a pliable, introspective macabre revenge thriller – one that dares you to look yourself in the mirror and except who you are, regardless of your sins, or the faith you live by.
Considering the film’s attested inspiration, you have to commend the Geare sibs for challenging themselves to mitigate their pain as constructively as they have, having done so in a way that transcends healing as much as it elevates its intended genre. Gladly, we can refer back to their story in association with a happy ending, providing a certain leeway to flourish a project that puts a focus on the human condition, with an air of coolness that will have you feeling like the hero of your own story.