Not all revenge thrillers are created equal, and some die harder than others

Becky and Judy & Punch feature kick-ass heroines, writes Chris Knight, while Survive the Night limps along on life support

Look out, Kevin James! It's Lulu Wilson, and she's got a walkie-talkie! Keri Anderson / Quiver Distribution

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One of my favourite moments in moviedom occurs in 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard, fourth in the series. John McClane’s daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has been kidnapped, and the bad guys give her the phone to talk to her dad. If you know movies, you’re prepared for her to whimper: “Please! Help me!” Instead, with a look of steely determination, she states: “Now there are only five of them.”

It’s a moment I recalled watching the excellent revenge thriller Becky, because when a group of escaped convicts takes over a rural property, young Becky (Lulu Wilson) snaps into action. First she grabs a walkie-talkie from her bedroom. Then she calls the bad guys on the other end, announcing herself with a burst of static, followed by: “Hey, a–hole!”

Wilson is easily the best thing about this movie – check out the look on her face in the moment when she realizes she has nothing to lose, and nothing left to live for. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Kevin James upsets all expectations in his role as Dominick, the gang’s skinhead, Swastika-tattooed leader. After two Paul Blarts and endless supporting work opposite Adam Sandler, I did not see this coming.

Co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion (Cooties, Bushwick) make the most of their simple set-up, as Becky Kevin McCallisters her way through a number of assailants, including one with the Bond-villain-henchman name of Apex, played by Canadian wrestler-turned-actor Robert Maillet. That’s not the only Cancon: The film was shot in Burlington, and Becky uses a Canadian quarter as a clever diversion in one scene.

The filmmakers use some clever editing tricks, including one that seems to place Becky and Dominick next to each other and they radio back and forth. There’s also some truly squirm-inducing violence; I can guarantee that if this film had opened in cinemas, it would have elicited screams and a few well earned shouts of “Woo!” from the audience. Becky rocks.

Damon Herriman and Mia Wasikowska are Punch and Judy in Judy & Punch.

And if female-centric revenge thrillers are your thing, this week offers a second helping with the beautifully shot Australian comedy-drama Judy & Punch. (Like the recent Gretel & Hansel, it signals its feminist tilt from the get-go.)

Mia Wasikowska stars as a 17th-century British puppeteer married to her artistic partner (Damon Herriman). Unfortunately, Punch is true to his name, often drinking himself punchy and also not above taking a swing at his wife. One such interaction ends with the couple’s separation, as Judy joins a collective of outcasts outside the town to nurse her wounds.

Viewers shouldn’t go looking for historical accuracy here. The outsiders’ camp is like a Hippie commune from the 1960s, while the town’s new constable (Benedict Hardie) seems to have wandered in from a 19th-century police precinct.

But actor and now first-time writer/director Mirrah Foulkes is more interested in using her story to highlight the dangerous chasm between superstition and rationality. In the town of Seaside (nowhere near the sea, the film is at pains to point out), capital crimes include “staring at the moon for a suspiciously long period of time.”

Judy finds kindred spirits in her exile, as one fellow outcast tells her their motto is: “Keep moving forward and hope the rest of the world catches up.” But she also has her mind set on retribution. Sometimes in the march forward you need to take a step back in the name of justice.

Bruce Willis and Chad Michael Murray are father and son in Survive the Night.

Returning to the subject of Die Hard brings us full circle to Survive the Night, another revenge thriller. This one stars Chad Michael Murray as Rich, a disgraced doctor who’s moved to the country following a lawsuit from the family of a patient who died on his watch. Bruce Willis – John McClane himself! – plays the man’s grumpy father, a retired sheriff (of course).

As in Becky, Rich and his family find themselves beset by desperate criminals, one of whom is wounded from a gunshot to the leg. Unlike Becky, however, the dialogue is as dull as an Ikea pencil, often to the point of being unintentionally hilarious.

Take the scene where the bad guys tell Rich that he’s going to have to take out the bullet and fix the limb. “I don’t operate on legs,” he growls, as if it’s some sort of moral position. Later he tells one of them: “I killed a guy, you know?” It sounds like a weird brag, but it turns out to be his opening remark in a quick discussion of the operating-room mishap that ruined his career.

Here’s hoping director Matt Eskandari isn’t similarly hobbled by this film, which feature Willis at his sleepiest, and little in the way of plot. Although it did cause me to seriously ponder the question: How long can someone bleed to death before, you know, they bleed to death? And why does a film called Survive the Night stretch well into the next day?

The country home where the action takes place is secluded, but not so much that an escaped character couldn’t take to the road or even hike cross-country in search of help. Instead, when Rich’s wife and teenaged daughter manage to untie their bonds, he tells them to hide in the shed until it’s over. If the other two movies taught us anything, it’s that he should have asked them to help.

Becky (4 stars out of 5), Judy & Punch (3 stars) and Survive the Night (1 star) are all available on demand as of June 5.