Calvin Dexter (Sam Elliott) is a former CIA agent who now works as a professional avenger. No, that doesn’t mean that he knows Iron Man or that he works with John Steed and Mrs. Peel. Instead it means that, motivated by his own feelings of hopelessness after his daughter was killed in Panama, Calvin offers his services to anyone who needs more help than the law can or will provide. Calvin Dexter is not your typical, cynical ex-spy. He is trying to make the world a better place by taking out its worst inhabitants. He is such an idealist that he even has a “No Peace Without Justice” bumper sticker on his pickup truck.
When Dexter is hired to track down Rickie, the son of an old friend, he discovers that Rickie was captured while working for a charity that was trying to help refugees in Bosnia. Rickie was tortured and murdered by men working for the Serbian warlord, Zoran Zilic (David Hayman). Dexter sets out to avenge Rickie’s death. Unfortunately, CIA director Paul Devereux (James Cromwell) considers Zilic to be a security asset. He doesn’t care how many people Zilic kills as long as he’s useful to U.S. Intelligence. Devereux sends another CIA agent, Frank McBride (Timothy Hutton), to stop Dexter by any means necessary.
Based on a novel by Fredrick Forsyth and produced for the TNT network, Avenger is one of those movies that used to show up often on late night television. I can remember it playing in the background during more than one late night study session in college. It’s the ideal film for late night viewing because there are enough twists and turns to hold your attention but the story is still easy to follow. While the movie does have an important point to make about the war crimes that took place in Bosnia and America’s role in protecting some of the worst perpetrators of those crimes, its main strength is the determined performance of Sam Elliott. Elliott is one of the few actors who has mastered the art of being both laid back and laser focused at the same time. He plays Dexter like a modern day frontier marshal, traveling to the most dangerous parts of world to dispense simple but effective justice.
Avenger is fast-paced and it will hold your attention. Sometimes, it feels like it could have been a pilot for a potential show and it is easy to imagine Dexter traveling to a different country each week and taking out a new international villain. Timothy Hutton has a few good scenes as the rival CIA agent, even if he can’t match Sam Elliott’s killer charisma. As usual, James Cromwell is well-cast as a government official who thinks that the ends can justify any means. Whenever I see a movie like this, featuring Cromwell as the epitome of what everyone hates about the establishment, I’m reminded that it’s been a long time since he played Archie Bunker’s reliably goofy best friend, Stretch Cunningham.