While it's definitely not the best international espionage thriller he's ever seen, Judge Bill Gibron still recommends this TV movie adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's novel.
If governments won't bring him to justice…he will.
A former war hero named Calvin Dexter (Sam Elliot, The Big Lebowski) leads a shady double life. During the day he's an attorney, playing the system against itself to get his clients the uneasy justice they may—or may not—deserve. But in his off hours, Dexter uses his skills as an ex-Special Forces operative to hand out personally determined payback, vigilante style. When an important man contacts him in a desperate effort to locate his lost son, Dexter traces the boy to Bosnia, and a war criminal named Zoran Zilic (David Hayman, Rob Roy). Turns out this bad guy is under the protection of the CIA, and agent Frank McBride (Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People) is in charge of protecting him. With orders from his influential higher-up (James Cromwell, Babe) to stop Dexter and a secret plot involving weapons-grade plutonium and a deal with some determined Arab terrorists, it is hard to tell which side anyone is on. About the only thing for certain is that Dexter is determined to take Zilic, dead or alive, and he's willing to manipulate the law and undermine national security to do it. His allegiance to the land he fought for has long since evaporated. Now he is merely an Avenger for hire.
While not the worst so-called action movie television has ever attempted, Avenger still suffers from some issues that, in hindsight, have very little to do with the medium itself. Though it tends to bring even the biggest epics down to a derivate, underwhelming level, a thriller can get away with minor vistas, as long as the narrative is as tight as a warrior's drum head. Sadly, the storyline (lifted from a Frederick Forsyth novel from 2003) uses the standard vigilante mercenary maneuvers, tied into ancillary sidesteps into Bosnian war crimes and dirty bombs. It's the kind of plot that asks us to (once again) accept a festering, corrupt CIA, a double-crossing agent, and a hired gun who is capable of thwarting any and all security situations, all in the name of capturing—and sometimes, killing—his target as givens in this politically complicated world. In the lead is a severely sun-crusted Sam Elliot, looking at least ten years older than his advertised 62 years of age. In his Calvin Dexter (not quite the handlebar name we expect for someone of Elliot's grizzled aura), we have a wounded war vet who's taking the untimely death of his only child, a daughter, very badly indeed. He has become the kind of man who answers ads in the back of Soldier of Fortune, meting out his own brand of justice with guns, knives, international contacts, a wise old Asian lady, and a wealth of phony passports and personas.
It's not that Elliot is bad here—his weather-tanned mannerisms have the necessary gravitas to pull off the role, even if he is looking more and more like a candidate for a one-way ticket to Sun City Center—it's just that he's functioning in service of a story that really has nothing new to offer. When we learn—spoiler, spoiler—that the CIA director is purposefully hiding a deranged military man who has committed numerous human atrocities, all in the name of a pro-terrorist stance, our "BTDT" ("been there, done that") antennas start spinning wildly. That there may even be a few more predictable tricks in the script's "by the book" denouements is also no big surprise. Instead of getting us personally involved with the plight of Elliot or the people he is working for, instead of making the U.S. agents (played by Timothy Hutton and James Cromwell) into multidimensional villains whom we can both cheer and sneer, veteran TV helmer Robert Markowitz (Murder in the Heartland, The Big Heist) simply sticks to the basics, hoping to barely get by. Thankfully, by some power outside the film's inherent flaws and fallacies, he manages to make it to the end. Much to our astonishment, we find ourselves engaged enough that we root for Elliot and boo the bad men.
There are a few interesting choices made within the story itself that keep Avenger from being merely average. During a frightening flashback, we see the slaughter of innocent children, usually a verboten notion in most mainstream moviemaking. There is also a nauseating "pit" where bodies are disposed of—and where the rotting corpses are eventually discovered. Similarly, the death of Elliot's daughter is depicted in a way that gets the point across without excess gratuity or gore. For the amount of killings and explosions surrounding this saga, there is very little blood (this is a TNT production, after all) and we seem stuck in a mindset that argues against our assassin always using murder as a way of solving his problems. On the downside, there are far too many vague individuals involved in the conspiratorial cat-and-mouse game. David Hayman, light years away from his turn as manager Malcolm McLaren in the Sex Pistols bio Sid and Nancy, is a one-note fiend as Zoran Zilic. Equally formless is Hutton's CIA screw-up Frank McBride. He gets so many of his assignments wrong that we wonder why he's not bumped up to number one on Elliot's hit list. Still, if one is willing to set aside all the less-than-impressive facets and merely let the narrative move along at its own casual clip, you will end up being entertained. While the material could have benefited from a stronger cinematic hand, Avenger is still a decent diversion. It's solid and safe.
Presented by Warner Brothers in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is solid and free from defects, the visual elements of this movie are interesting, but offer little in the way of cinematic artistry. The colors are correct and the details are distinguishable, but that's about it. It needs to be said, however, that Avenger makes excellent use of its many locations. South Africa looks both evocative and inviting, its sweeping vistas captured well in Markowitz's compositions and framing. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is professionally realized, with an overemphasis on Lion King-lite polyrhythms. It makes one wonder if Africa has anything more to offer, musically, than chants surrounded by Graceland-era beats. Sadly, there is not a single extra added to this DVD—no commentaries, interviews, EPKs, or even ads for other TNT productions. Such a bare-bones approach really limits the potential purchase power for such a demographically specific title.
Avenger will obviously appeal to fans of Forsyth and Elliot, and anyone who enjoys the limited pleasures of escapist B-movies for television. It's a far cry from other classics by the author, like his seminal The Day of the Jackal, but for 90 minutes of perfectly pedestrian thrills, this is one revenge movie that's more or less victorious. Don't expect much, and your downgraded stance will be richly rewarded.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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