Nobody does gruff and grizzled a whole lot better than Sam Elliott, who steps away (though not by much) from his track record in TNT Westerns to star in this spare Frederick Forsyth adaptation about a revenge-seeking former Special Forces officer. It’s been done countless times before (“The Equalizer,” perhaps foremost, comes to mind), but Elliott’s no-nonsense performance manages to render this a cathartic exercise in old-style vengeance. Although not presented as a backdoor pilot, one could easily see this character rising to kill — er, exact justice — again.
Elliott plays Vietnam vet Calvin Dexter, who took the law into his own hands to hunt down the bastard who killed his daughter. Two years later, he answers an ad placed by a tycoon (Stephen Edmonds) whose aid-worker son has disappeared in Bosnia — brutally murdered, it turns out, by a Serbian war criminal named Zoran Zilic (David Hayman).
“Not all wrongs can be righted,” Dexter grumbles, quoting an old drill sergeant. “That doesn’t mean some shouldn’t be.”
Hunting down Zilic takes on a rather peculiar twist, however, inasmuch as he’s being shielded by the CIA, which intends to use him in one of its covert operations. The agent in charge (Timothy Hutton) doesn’t relish potentially tackling a U.S. war hero to protect a scummy killer, but as his boss (James Cromwell, in the briefest of cameos) observes, doing good sometimes requires getting into bed with the bad guys.
Of course, with Dexter in full-on Rambo mode, none of this makes much of a difference, as he meticulously goes about the process of tracking Zilic to Africa and outsmarting those seeking to thwart his plans.
Crisply directed by Robert Markowitz and adapted by Alan Sharp, there’s not much to “Avenger,” and the film could certainly do without the repeated flashbacks to Dexter’s daughter, her corpse and dad dispatching her murderer. OK, she’s dead, he’s angry, we get it.
That said, it’s a guilty pleasure to watch Elliott, now in his 60s, still able to convincingly pull off this gnarled, modern cowboy, occupying a world where the villains are truly evil and moral ambiguity is never an issue.
Granted, nuance has its place, but not in a movie like “Avenger,” whose hero would drive a truck right through it, then explode it with C-4 for good measure.