A Movie A Day #239: Act of Vengeance (1986, directed by John Mackenzie)


Act of Vengeance is an uncompromising look at union corruption and how it hurts the workers while benefitting the bosses.

The year is 1969 and the United Mine Workers of America is one of the biggest and most powerful labor unions in the country.  The UMWA was founded to protect the rights of miners but the current union president, Tony Boyle (Wilford Brimley), is more concerned with enriching himself and consolidating his own power.  Despised by the workers that he represents, Boyle has managed to stay in power through fixed elections and his own fearsome reputation.  When 80 West Virginia miners are killed in an accident, Boyle defends the owners.  That is the last straw for Jock Yablonski (Charlies Bronson), a lifelong miner and proud union man.  Yablonski runs against Boyle for the UMWA presidency and, when the election is stolen from him, Yablonski challenges the results.

Boyle’s solution?  Working through one of his supporters (played by Hoyt Axton), Boyle hires three assassins (Robert Schenkkan, Maury Chaykin, and a young Keanu Reeves) and orders them to kill not only Yablonski but his entire family too.

With a name like Act of Vengeance and a star like Charles Bronson, it would be understandable to assume that this is another Cannon action film where Bronson gets vengeance by blowing away the bad guys.  That’s not the case, though.  Made for HBO, Act of Vengeance is based on a true story of union corruption and murder.  There is violence but very little of it comes from Bronson.  Instead, this is a well-made docudrama about what happens when workers are betrayed by the very people who are supposed to be looking out for them.

Bronson grew up working in the mines and he never forgot the poverty of his youth.  He knew men like the men depicted in this movie and Bronson gives one of his most naturalistic performances as Yablonski.  Brimley is at his gruffest as Boyle and the performances of the actors playing the three hapless but deadly assassins also feel authentic.  Ellen Burstyn and Ellen Barkin are also well-cast as, respectively, Yablonski’s wife and the wife of the main assassin.

A Movie A Day #91: Ruby (1992, directed by John Mackenzie)


Of all the stars to come out of Twin Peaks, Sherilyn Fenn’s star briefly shined the brightest and sadly, she was the most misused by Hollywood.  While it is true that Fenn has worked regularly since Twin Peaks went off the air, she has rarely gotten the great roles that someone with her talent deserves.  Instead, her performances have far too often been the best thing about an otherwise mediocre film.

For example, Ruby.

In this very speculative biopic about the strip club owner who killed Lee Harvey Oswald and whose organized crime background has put him at the center of a thousand conspiracy theories, Danny Aiello plays Jack Ruby and Sherilyn Fenn plays his only friend, Sheryl Ann Dujean (or, when she’s stripping in the Carousel Club, Candy Cane).  The film portrays Jack Ruby as being a low-level mobster who is never as valuable or as important to his superiors as he thinks he is.  In this movie, Ruby is always on the outside looking in on the conspiracy and, when he kills Oswald, it is because he wants to prove that he is more than just a small time hood.  Candy, who was a composite of several Carousel Club dancers, maintains a strong platonic friendship with Jack and is always there for him to talk to, except for when she goes to Vegas to perform for and sleep with the President.

Ruby came out as the same time as JFK and it often seems like a fanfic based on Stone’s film.  Low budget and overwritten, Ruby never works as a movie but Danny Aiello is perfectly cast as the bombastic but insecure Jack Ruby.  Unfortunately, Ruby‘s screenplay often does not seem to know what it wants to say about its main character.  As Candy, Fenn is not given nearly enough to do but she still manages to show the same natural spark that made her a star on Twin Peaks.

Sherilyn Fenn is not the only Twin Peaks cast member to have a role in Ruby.  Keep an eye out for a post-Twin Peaks, pre-X-Files David Duchovny, playing the role of J.D. Tippit.