Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ministry Of Vengeance (1989)

There are certain things in life for which we all have an instinctual preference, and these preferences are usually of a binary nature.  Even when they are not, however, there is still a strong predilection to dislike one rather than simply tolerate all.  For example, you may like brunettes and dislike blondes, or you may like blondes and redheads but dislike brunettes, and so on.  But I would wager damn near all of you favor one more strongly than the others, and for the life of you, you can’t quite explain why (but I’m sure many have tried).  Maybe it’s some psychosexual thing going back to your upbringing and bizarre Oedipal/Electra issues.  That’s not the point.  The point is that anyone who has ever spent any length of time following the adventures of a couple of “good ol’ boys” from Hazzard County is partial to either Bo (John Schneider) or Luke (Tom Wopat) Duke.  You don’t know why.  It doesn’t make sense.  They were essentially the same character, but there it is for you.  Which one of the Brothers Duke do I root for more?  That’s for me to know, and for you to find out.  But just to give you a hint; Peter Maris’s Ministry Of Vengeance didn’t garner Schneider any points from me.

Deep in The Shit in Vietnam with his platoon, David Miller (Schneider) is the stalwart among Colonel Freeman’s (James Tolkan) soldiers.  After going down into a tunnel to try and clear out the enemy, he winds up blowing it up and bringing it down.  Years later, Miller is a well-adjusted reverend in Rome with his beautiful wife Gail (Meg Register) and daughter Kim (Joey Peters).  A group of terrorists from “The People’s Army” led by Ali Aboud (Robert Miano) shoot up the astoundingly-bingo-hall-looking airport, killing Miller’s family.  Miller ordains himself as the Ministry Of Vengeance!  Boom!

There are some interesting base thoughts in this film, key among them, of course, being that of the Holy Warrior.  By and large, this trope deals with the idea that there was some pivotal defining occurrence in the life of a Man of Violence which caused him to renounce his old life and seek peace and solace in a religious life.  And while the good parts of world religions teach us to be kind to our fellow man and so on (and this is the part our protagonist fools himself into believing is the totality of this life), it is impossible to deny the fact that the holy tomes of most religions are filled with violence, acted out by both gods and men.  But we’re not here to discuss theology.  We’re here to look at how (if at all) theology can be used in Action films and how (if at all) it does here.  So, the Violent Man who became the Holy Man is almost invariably drawn back into his former life.  The key is in which path he takes or if he tries to merge the two (witness: Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, Pale Rider, El Topo, et cetera).  Miller’s discovery is that he is not made out to be a man of the cloth, and even though we never find out if he is even still religious-minded (the crucifix he wore in Nam is never seen again, if my memory serves), he knows that his faith isn’t what he thought it was.  This disillusionment is only reinforced by what he encounters on his quest to find Aboud, but it is not only the duplicity of those thought to be devout which shakes him.  He also has to deal with the government on whose behalf he once fought.  Essentially, both worlds Miller lives in are artificial and untrustworthy on some level, so he chooses a third route away from both.  Of course, this is only after he has shot up a nice chunk of the Middle East.

Of course, being a soldier first and foremost, Miller knows all about violence in the mechanical sense.  However, being a veteran of one of the most unpopular wars in American history, he can make distinctions about the righteousness of violence (basically, does the end justify the means; something rarely, if ever seen in films pre-Vietnam War).  Having seen and been ordered to participate in acts of aggression counter to most peoples’ innate compassion, he understands the idea of an eye for an eye, and he sees his mission against Aboud as one of punishment for a killer.  This also presents the viewer with a notion of duality in the film (above and beyond that of Warrior/Priest).  Normally in this type of film the former warrior is typically pared off against a fellow ex-warrior, and he is the exact opposite number of our protagonist (think: Matrix and Bennett in Commando).  In Ministry Of Vengeance, Miller’s opposite is Aboud, obviously, but unlike what we are used to, Aboud is almost characterless.  He is as devoid of personality as any of his minions are.  The only thing we know about any of them is that they are Middle Eastern and terrorists, so in the realm of the Eighties Action film, they are as legitimate a group of candidates for cinematic villainy as anybody else (certainly in the fact that they are foreign).  But let’s make no mistake, Miller is also as flat an Action hero as has ever been, so in this way, I suppose you could say he and Ali are like a five-and-dime version of Matrix and Bennett.  It’s just extremely difficult to drum up any investment in their conflict due to the film’s shortcomings.

This is the sort of film where advocates tell you that you need to turn off your mind in order to like it.  I would say I’m fairly adept at this method of viewing, though I also have problems with it, because I don’t think it’s possible to do completely (at least I can’t; maybe it’s a sickness), and I certainly don’t feel it’s beneficial when you’re watching a film in order to write about it.  With that in mind, Ministry Of Vengeance is a hot mess.  Even looking past the unenthusiastic acting across the board (and from such talents as Ned Beatty, George Kennedy, and Yaphet Kotto) and the actual sight of excitement draining off the screen like a gas tank siphoning out, there are coincidences going on in this film that just made me shake my head.  For instance, after asking government agent Mr. Whiteside (Kotto) for help in identifying the man who killed his family, David goes home, opens a magazine, and just happens to find a photo of Aboud.  Later, he sneaks into a village, and his guide takes off to locate our villain.  Glancing around, Miller spots the very man in a house directly across the street from him.  It feels as though Maris and company may as well have simply filmed the first and last scenes of the film, since none of the scenes in between build off one another.  They’re simply filler to suck up screen time, and the script dismisses obstacles with offhanded facility.  But worse than being insulting to one’s intelligence, the film is boring, and for that reason alone, you can give this one the last rites.

MVT:  The template of the film is for your standard Action/Revenge film, and it is as predictable as expected.  Everything else is largely a waste of time and celluloid.

Make Or Break:  The Break is the aforementioned scene in the village.  Coincidence in film is a funny thing.  We can usually accept one (okay) or two (well, maybe) incidences of it.  But when the entire plot and action of a film is a neverending series of coincidences (oh, c’mon, already), it reeks of amateur hour.

Score:  4.5/10    

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