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Ministry of Vengeance

Ministry of Vengeance

1989, Dir. Peter Maris

Ken Abraham, Ned Beatty, George Kennedy

Originally written by Marxo Grouch for the Bad Movie Message Board roundtable, "The Reagan Years." Check out his own fine website, Plate o' Shrimp! I command it!!

I can just see the byline: "Bo Duke! Kickin' ass and takin' vows!"

In this dippy revenge/mercenary movie, Schneider plays a priest, who, when his wife and daughter are gunned down by a middle-eastern terrorist, reverts to his old commando training to settle the score. If that sounds like an old 'Saturday Night Live' sketch, that's more or less the way it plays too, except, of course, that it's not funny.

We begin in Vietnam. David Miller (Schneider), following an attack on his company, has to crawl into a tunnel where he ends up shooting a teenage girl guerrilla. She's holding a grenade, which then blows her to kingdom come.

Suddenly he wakes up in an airport in Rome; it was all a dream, a remembrance of a time past. He is now a priest and he and his wife and daughter are about to get on a plane after a vacation. Unfortunately before they can board, terrorists attack. The daughter is shot in the melee. The head bad guy (Miano) announces that they are taking the plane along with everyone already on board and guns down Miller's wife as an example of what will happen to hostages if their demands are not met.

Miller goes to see State Department official Mr. Whiteside (Kotto), whose name may or may not be a joke. The meeting certainly is, as within the space of a minute Whiteside goes from assuring Miller that the man who killed his family will be brought to justice, with one of the cheesy grins that Kotto delivers so well, to telling him that there's nothing they can do. Miller vows to go to Lebanon and take care of it himself. Whiteside orders his assistant to have the priest tailed.

Flipping through some Soldier of Fortune-type magazines, Miller catches sight of a picture of his foe, possibly in some kind of Terrorist-of-the-Month spread. He goes to church where he tells his fellow clergyman Reverend Hughes (Kennedy) that since the deaths of his wife and daughter he has been sustained by his anger and hatred and decidedly not his faith. He goes out to perform a service and finds that Hughes has marked as the reading for that day a passage from Luke about loving thine enemy. He tries to read it, but breaks down. Hughes begs him not to turn his back on his faith, but Miller says God can't help him, though he knows who can. (I will resist at this point the urge to make a joke about Miller 'defrocking himself.')

He goes to see his old compatriot Colonel Freeman (Tolkan, who most will probably recognize as Mr. Strickland ("McFly!") from the Back to the Future films), who is now running his own private military training camp. He states his intention to go to Lebanon and hunt down the man, whose name we now learn is Ali Aboud. Freeman tells him he's nuts, but agrees to put him through his program, all the while keeping up the typical drill sergeant patter: "Just because you smell like apes**t , don't mean you're Tarzan!" (Typical movie drill sergeant patter anyway, I wouldn't know from the real thing.) But it's not too long before Miller decides it's Lebanon time.

In Lebanon he is picked up by Zarah (Kotero). She takes him to meet Reverend Bloor (Beatty), an ex-diplomat who now runs a Mission in the area. Miller finds a package in his room: an Uzi sent by Freeman.

Meanwhile Freeman is getting a visit from Whiteside. Turns out he's a 'company' man and the camp is company-run. Whiteside is not happy that Freeman allowed Miller to go to Lebanon, because it might compromise their most important Middle-Eastern agent. He informs Freeman that whether he likes it or not he will be joining Miller in Lebanon.

Miller tells Father Bloor and Zarah that he intends to find Aboud. They are reluctant to help him, but Fatima, the housekeeper who was attacked and raped by one of Aboud's men, tells him she can lead him to Aboud.

Miller and Fatima sneak up on Aboud's abode (Say it out loud! It's fun!). Miller spots Aboud in a window and gets him in his sights, but he has a moment of doubt and loses his opportunity. Meanwhile Fatima gets closer, but is waylaid by guards. She stabs one, but the other shoots her. More soldiers appear and chase Miller. Fatima is recognized as a member of the Mission and Aboud and his guys make plans to attack it.

The guards catch up with Miller and it looks like he's pretty much screw-geed, but who should show up but Freeman, guns blazing. They go back to the Mission, where Freeman and Reverend Bloor argue about the impending attack on the Mission. You know the type, it's the old "We must reason with them!", "No, we must kill them!" bit. And guess who turns out to be right? Anyway Aboud and his buds (Also fun to say!) attack, Reverend Bloor is killed and Freeman, Miller and Zarah are captured. This leads to torture, treachery, a twist ending and the inevitable moment where Miller does, in fact, begin to kick ass for the Lord. Well, he doesn't really do it for the Lord, but I figured you guys, particularly Mr. Sterno, would be disappointed if I didn't at least say it.

The main problem with Ministry of Vengeance, from a dramatic standpoint anyway, is that despite some effort to make us do so, we never really feel Miller's conflict between his desire for revenge and his post-Vietnam turn towards pacifism. Part of this lies with Schneider. He tries, but, my apologies to Uncle Jesse and the rest of the Duke family, he just doesn't have the strength as an actor to pull off the complex emotions necessary to make it work.

But only a small part of the blame lies with Schneider. After all, Charles Bronson is no Olivier, but his similar conflict in Death Wish was rather well portrayed IMO. One gets the sense that the filmmakers here didn't grasp the dramatic potential of the idea or, even more likely, that they didn't understand how to convey it. A good example would be the title. It's pun, for crying out loud. The above reference to SNL is not facetious. It wouldn't really take all that much tinkering to transplant Charlie Sheen into Schneider's role and turn this into Hot Shots Part Trois:

The central dramatic bit more or less of a write-off, can you turn off your intellect and enjoy the graphic violence and/or occasional gratuitous nudity this type of film can offer? Well, no. There is a fair amount of violence, but most of it is relatively bloodless (or maybe I'm just jaded, I don't know). And the very lovely Kotero, who you might reasonably assume is here for the cheesecake factor, especially given her topless scene in Prince's Purple Rain, has one scene where her shirt comes open and you see her in her bra, making for woefully lowfat cheesecake. Turning the intellect back on, one might say that the inclusion of excessive violence or sex would have detracted from the gravity of the main story, but as we've already addressed the filmmakers' cluelessness in this area, it just makes me wonder what audience they thought they were catering to.

In the end Ministry of Vengeance doesn't really have much to recommend it except to dedicated John Schneider fans. And they do exist. The reason I watched this film for the first time was for the presence of Beatty and Kotto, both veterans of 'Homicide: Life on the Street,' a show that I will relentlessly plug at any given opportunity. But the reason the video store that I work at acquired the film in the first place was for a female client who wanted to see as many John Schneider films as she could. Chances are she got a whole lot more out of this flick than I did. Or than you will.