Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Since the early 70s the vigilante/ revenge genre films have emerged dealing with characters brandishing a personal form of justice. Magnum Force (1973) maybe one of the earliest of films where a group of police rookies join a vigilante group that goes after criminals who have gotten off from a crooked judicial system. The 1974, Charles Bronson film Death Wish though, really started the vigilante/ revenge genre. Soon there was Taxi Driver (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), and Ms. 45 (1981). Yet it is director William Lustig’s and writer Richard Vetere’s Vigilante (1983) that wraps up the genre, while summing up its nihilistic message.
The story is about a man named Eddie Marino whose wife has been beaten by a gang and his son has been murdered. Though Eddie is friends with Nick, Burke and some other guys he is hesitant about joining their vigilante group. He believes that the judicial system and law is the only way to keep order, otherwise they would be no different from any other criminal. Yet Eddie’s journey through the judicial system to get the gang who murdered his son is anything but ideal. His bitchy lawyer makes the judge mad and then sentences the gang leader Rico to two years in prison. When Eddie reacts he is contempt of court and sentenced to two years in prison as well. While Eddie is in prison, Nick and the group are still cleaning up the city. A drug dealer that is selling to kids is beaten after a lengthy chase through Williamsburg’s McCaren Park and Pool. In jail Eddie is being harassed in the shower by fellow inmates, yet a guy named Rake helps to fend off his tormentors. Meanwhile, Nick is following his own lead from Horace a pimp to the leader of the drug racket Thomas “Mr. T” Stokes.
In two years Eddie is released from jail and he immediately joins the vigilante group and kills Rico who he thought killed his son. Before Rico dies he tells Eddie that Prago killed his son. Before the Vigilante group leaves one of the group members is shot by Rico’s girlfriend, who is then shot by Nick. Eddie visits his wife but she no longer wants to see him and blames him for not being there during the attack. Gang retaliates and machine-guns a car of police officers. Eddie eventually finds Prago and gives chase first on foot, then by car and climbing up a tower where the final confrontation ends with Eddie pushing Prago to fall to his death. Just when you think it is the end, Eddie blows up the judge’s car with him in it, eliminating the law he once believed in.
Like Lustig’s previous film Maniac (1980), Vigilante is a down and dirty look at New York City in the early 80s. Yet where Maniac deals with a psycho serial killer on the loose in the city, Vigilante ups the stakes and has psycho victims terrorizing the criminals. William Lustig’s film is a study of random gang violence that happens in urban cities. From the opening a man named Nick is talking to a group of people about taking the city back from the gangs and punks. But right after the credits a woman is raped at knife-point by a thug. Though an old woman saw the thug leave, it’s the same old routine and no one is talking and the police can’t do a thing. Yet in the next scene a group of Vigilantes go and get the thug, proving how ineffectual the police really are. Lustig’s direction never slows as the film’s brisk pace moves from one scene to the next, while Vetere’s crisp dialog ignites some great performances.
Vigilante might be Fred Williamson’s best and most unhinged performance as Nick. From the wild look in his eyes to his sarcastic grin, Williamson just embodies an inner city cynicism. Though it is Robert Forster’s brooding Eddie with his internal performance that really brings out the voice of the writer Vetere. Robert Forster always looked like he could be Charles Bronson’s younger brother, so it’s fitting that he should play the archetype that Bronson created. Though Robert Forster is a softer and deeper actor, and is able to pull sympathy from the viewer. By the time Forster realizes the tragedy that has befallen on his family we are in shock like him. It was nice to see a reduced part for Joe Spinell as the scum lawyer who defends Rico. After Maniac the last thing anyone wants is an entire movie of Joe Spinell, yet in a bit part he can be priceless There is great acting support from Woody Strode and Carol Lynley as Eddie’s tough lawyer as well.
Vigilante is a genre film that really depicts a different time in American cinema. The city of New York that we see in 1983 is a grimy drug and prostitution infested war zone. This film looks like it could be a precursor to the world John Carpenter created in Escape From New York (1981). In Escape To New York, the city has become a walled off war zone of criminals in a lawless world, a world Vigilante is in the process of making. The gang that terrorizes Eddie’s family looks like a mixture of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) and John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), and as cold hearted as the gangs in George Miller’s Mad Max (1979). Jay Chattaway’s music for Vigilante is also similar to John Carpenter’s scores, using early 80s synth. Lustig being the big fan of cinema that he is, was probably influenced by some of the films mentioned. Interestingly the Peter Hyams’ film The Star Chamber (1983) released the same year, has similar plot points as Vigilante but on a broader more political level.
Vigilante is great thriller that concludes an interesting genre of vigilante revenge films made popular in the 70s, in a time when 42nd Street played edgy politically incorrect films to all types of vagabonds at all hours. The film resides in a time of depressed economy, when many had fears of cities and urbanization, untrustworthy presidents, and corrupt law. The belief is that the police are useless and no one is going to protect or save you but yourself. Vigilante plays on those fears and turns a man’s life into a hellish nightmare. By the time Eddie has blown up the judge and exterminated the law, what can be next but apocalyptic chaos in this new life he has created. The ending does indeed have a dark ring of humor though. Lustig would carry on with his cinematic tradition in his next film Maniac Cop (1988), which seemed to mix Maniac and Vigilante together in yet another study in American criminal corruption and its judicial process.