During Vietnam, a unit led by Col. Freeman (James Tolkan, They Might Be Giants) is ambushed. One member of the unit disappears down a tunnel, so Freeman sends his best man, David Miller (John Schneider, Speed Zone), down in after him. The horrors that Miller experiences* lead him to give up fighting, settle down to marriage and children, and become a minister. That is…until Miller finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time: an airport in Rome, during a terrorist attack led by Abi Aboud (Robert Miano, Firestarter). Aboud personally guns down Miller’s wife and daughter. When the authorities, personified by Mr. Whiteside (Yaphet Kotto, Monkey Hu$tle), say there’s nothing they can do but wait for Aboud to leave war-torn Lebanon, Miller goes through a crisis of faith. Reverend Hughes (George Kennedy, Airport 1975) tries to help Miller through his grief, but in the middle of a “turn the other cheek” reading, Miller leaves his church and goes to Col. Freeman, who now runs a training camp for weekend warriors and soldiers of fortune. Freeman reluctantly agrees to train Miller, but when he arranges for Miller get to Lebanon to look for Aboud, is he on the level? What about Freeman’s contact in Lebanon, Reverend Bloor (Ned Beatty, White Lightning)? Will Miller choose revenge over his faith?
Ministry of Vengeance is a low-budget 1989 action film from director Peter Maris, who did a string of revenge/action movies before this one (as well as a post apocalypse flick shot in Turkey and what sounds like an attempt to fuse The Manchurian Candidate and Halloween). Maris has since done everything from an interactive CD-ROM horror video game to sci-fi, to comedy, to more films that sound like vaguely updated follow ups to this one. Hopefully he’s learned something in the time since he made this movie. Ministry of Vengeance features a plot that was a little more relevant in 1989, when Americans were still outraged by the hijacking of the Achille Lauro and other terrorist actions carried out in Europe and the Middle East. Pairing terrorists with an American revenge movie plot should work, in theory, providing a ready-made other (not to mention fanatical) opponent and relatively easy scenery to recreate on a Hollywood back lot. Throw in a cast of TV and character actors and this could have been a fun romp.
Unfortunately, Maris seems to be torn between giving the action audience what it wants (John Schneider in full vestments, firing an AK-47 in each hand and slaughtering shifty-eyed terrorists left and right) and taking the 1980s TV movie approach (or is it just the budget conscious approach?) with Miller going through a crisis of faith, stopping to hesitate at each opportunity until he finally goes on the expected shooting spree in the last 15 minutes of screen time. Budget (and the framework of revenge movies, which generally requires the hero to be “pushed too far” before finally giving us the full vengeance) explains some of this delay, but not all. The scenes with Miller going through traditional channels and failing to get any help, struggling at home with his grief and faith, these are basic elements of the revenge movie formula, while Freeman’s training camp fit nicely into 80s “training montage” clichés. Even after Miller gets to Lebanon, however, he’s still struggling with his decision to seek justice on his own terms. He gets one of Bloor’s people killed in his first attempt to kill Aboud, sparking a siege of the mission. It is only after Aboud’s goons attempt to rape Zarah (Apollonia), torture Miller and kill Freeman that Miller goes on the attack.
Is this a nascent attempt to tap into the lucrative Christian market? The plot is full of elements aimed at the conflicted Christian action film watcher: a minister, a crisis of faith, heathen bad guys. This isn’t quite a Kirk Cameron “joint”, but we’re getting there, with no nudity, a lower body count and less explicit violence than typical in an R-rated 80s action film (especially one this close to the origin story of The Punisher). It’s the filmmakers just wanted to make a cheap buck off current events and limited the action to keep the budget low, or wanted to tell a different kind of story (nudity wouldn’t really organically fit into the film as written), but one has to wonder. Certainly the money was starting to be there in the Christian market.
For today’s viewer, there’s a lot of “cheesy 80s/so-bad-it’s-good” fun to be had here. The film is never so incompetent as to impede enjoyment (even if it does drag in parts) and the clichéd plot is easy to follow while you’re laughing at or heckling it. The character actors are fun to watch; I particularly enjoyed seeing the principal from Back to the Future woefully miscast as a hard as nails sarge, looking short next to 6’4″ John Schneider. The only thing missing is for the film to go completely over-the-top. We need a Robert Rodriguez’s remake with John Schneider in the same role, only this time he does go out for revenge in his full vestments, and with Cheech Marin as his sidekick Deacon.
*Horrors which turn out to be shooting a woman who was about to throw a grenade at him, then having the grenade blow her up.