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"The Railway Man" puts a new spin on a classic revenge flick

Vengeance derailed

Colin Firth’s latest feature unfolds like "The Bridge on the River Kwai" meets "Zero Dark Thirty."

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I love a good, old-fashioned "get-even" movie. There's just something undeniably and timelessly appealing about seeing a poor, put-upon protagonist suffer the slings and arrows of some cartoonish villain only to rise up and make that villain face justice. If that happens when the bad guy is at the apex of an especially dastardly plot, perhaps while stroking an angora cat and monologuing that no one can stop them as some world-ending super weapon counts down to activation on an IMAX-sized computer screen, even better. The more confident the villain is in their success and the closer they are to actually achieving it when the hero foils them, the more cathartic the vengeance is for both the hero and the audience.

The one thing we don't want to see in a revenge movie is a villain with any humanizing qualities. Nobody wants to see Robocop ambush Clarence Boddicker while he's volunteering at a soup kitchen or James Bond get the drop on Blofeld when he's reading Charlotte's Web to the kids at a children's hospital. We want our villains evil, and they have to be the absolute embodiment of evil. If the villain has any positive, redeeming qualities, then they're a person. They're a person who's done some very bad things, but a person nonetheless. That's not the most comfortable concept with which to confront a theater filled with persons that came to see a heroic person make a villainous person pay.

The classic revenge film formula gets turned on its head in The Railway Man, the latest from director Jonathan Teplitzky. Based on the autobiographical novel of the same name, the film follows Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine), a British radio operator stationed in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Surrounded by Japanese forces on all sides, Lomax's unit surrenders, throwing themselves at the mercy of the enemy. Unfortunately, mercy is in short supply. Lomax and his fellow soldiers are imprisoned and forced into hard labor building the Burma Railway for the Japanese. To make matters worse, members of the Japanese Secret Police, including "interpreter" Takashi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), are stationed at the labor camp in order to glean classified information from the Brits and quash rebellion by any means necessary. The harsh working conditions and the brutality of the Japanese soldiers gradually chip away at the Brits' morale and their numbers, but Lomax miraculously survives to see the end of the war.

Although the war is over, it rages on in the hearts and minds of the camp survivors. More than 20 years later, Lomax (now played by Colin Firth) is still plagued by vivid nightmares and PTSD. When Lomax discovers that his chief tormentor, Takashi Nagase (now played by Hiroyuki Sanada), is still alive and escaped prosecution for his crimes, Lomax sets out on a quest for revenge. Of course, the war has been over for many years, and Lomax isn't the only one who returned home a changed man.

THE RAILWAY MAN, opens Friday, April 25, The Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma, $4.50-$9, 253.593.4474

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