If you gave me just the opening scene of The Retaliators and a million guesses, I would not be able to predict the movie that follows. Not even close. Take one look at the poster and you’d think it’s a post-John Wick, post-The Night Comes for Us revenge movie. Watch the opening scene and it’s clearly a zombie movie. But watch the rest of it and you’ll find that it’s a wholly unique flick, adjacent to a handful of genre favs, complete with familiar imagery, none of which is employed in a way that you’ve likely seen before. When dealing with low-budget thrillers it’s often hard to be surprised, and even though The Retaliators brushes up against its budgetary limitations somewhat regularly, it never shies away from them, going as big as is manageable and holding on to its secrets until the exact right moment for maximum impact.
After a stylish but familiar opening, in which a group of potential campers are brutally killed by raging, blood-soaked humanoids, the film immediately departs the genre world and becomes a charming family drama. Bishop (Michael Lombardi) is a preacher, a widower, and a father of two girls. He’s naturally protective over them both, taking his role as both a father and a community leader rather seriously. He’s contemplative and fair. An early scene in which he confronts a real jerk (Brian O’ Halloran!) while Christmas tree shopping could have devolved into violence, and given the nature of what goes down, no one would have blamed Bishop if he’d clocked the guy right then and there. But he doesn’t, and furthermore, he ruminates on the circumstances, relaying his experience into a moving sermon the very next day.
He’s a “turn the other cheek” type, through and through. Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those faith-based cringe fests that skimp on thrills in exchange for preachy moral posturing. In the case of The Retaliators, the faith of our hero is just thematic dressing, utilized to build a moral framework for the character, not the viewer.
Bishop’s code of non-violence is tested when his daughter stumbles into a violent conspiracy by sheer chance and ends up dead. Battling grief and a lack of catharsis, Bishop finds himself on a dangerous path. And that path, ladies and germs, is the bulk of our movie.
Where The Retaliators is most successful is in the way it balances multiple storylines, keeping each individually interesting until finally weaving them together in an explosive and violent final act. The details are best left scant, but I reiterate that you can trust the scattershot narrative paying off properly. The magic of the script is in the way it delivers on the goods promised by its genre shell without selling out the personality and motivation of our hero.
None of this would work without a strong central performance, a department in which this films far exceeds its peers. Lombardi is a believable everyman whose descent into the seedy underbelly of society is remarkably human. Without a strong turn from Katie Kelly as the young woman whose death spurs the entirety of the film, we wouldn’t feel the loss so tangibly. Marc Menchaca, as Jed, the detective working to solve the murder and provide his own brand of comfort to Bishop is perhaps the largest performance in the film. Handled with less tact than is on display here, it would run the risk feeling out of place within the film’s established register, but the combination of Mechaca’s gruff-but-damaged modality and a script that supports it with proper motivation makes it work.
There are moments where The Retaliators is limited by its budget, leading to some uneven moments and a rougher visual edge, but I must commend it for standing up to these limitations in every way possible. Nothing is phoned in, nor is anything dialed back in an act of artistic concession. One gets the sense that this is pretty much the exact movie that the filmmakers wanted to make, even if it doesn’t always land its punches. For the most part, it kicks ass.
Your individual mileage may vary on the aggressive nu-metal soundtrack (note: the cast features members of Five Finger Death Punch and Papa Roach!). I am admittedly not the biggest fan of the genre, and tended to chuckle a little at the first few needle drops, but by the end I was completely on board with the music selection. It fits the tone of the movie to a T.
Huge kudos to the closing credits song, which appears to have been written FOR the movie. That doesn’t happen anymore, and I don’t know why. More movies should do it!
Directed by Samuel Gonzalez Jr., Michael Lombardi, Bridget Smith
Written by Darren Geare, Jeff Allen Geare
Starring Michael Lombardi, Marc Menchaca, Joseph Gatt, Katie Kelly
Not rated, 95 minutes