It's a shame that this movie is so relatively unknown and barely seen on TV anymore. Anyone who is a fan of gritty, urban flicks set in NYC in the '70s and early '80s ("Death Wish," "Taxi Driver," "Gloria," "Fort Apache, the Bronx," etc.) should definitely check out 1979's "Defiance," starring Jan Michael Vincent as Tom Gamble, a merchant seaman who is forced to reside in Manhattan's Lower East Side until he can find employment on another ship. As it turns out, the Lower East Side (or "L.E.S." as it has come to be known over the years by its actual residents) is run by a vicious street gang known as the Savage Souls, and it isn't long before Gamble and the Souls are at odds with each other, culminating in a brutal (and very realistically-staged) fight between Gamble and the gang's leader in the hallways and stairways of a housing project .
As a Puerto Rican who has lived in Manhattan all of his life, I'll be the first to admit that there are hints of prejudice throughtout the movie: Like other vigilante films of the same era ("Death Wish," "Fighting Back," "Vigilante,"), the protagonist is a white man who is going to "clean up the streets" by taking on out-of-control minorities who have become too much of a problem for the the police to handle (in this case, it is the Souls, a mostly Puerto Rican gang led by the not-so-Puerto Rican actor Rudy Ramos). Some Puerto Ricans may be offended by the fact that some of the Souls even have the Puerto Rican flag displayed on the backs of their jackets, as well as a scene where a Jewish grocery store clerk (played by Art Carney) tells Tom how the neighborhood used to be great before "everything changed" (an indirect way of blaming the neighborhood's social problems on the influx of Puerto Ricans who have moved in).
Nevertheless, I cannot help but get swept up in nostalgia when I see "Defiance:" as dilapidated and crime-ridden as New York City's Latino neighborhoods may have been back in 1979 (and mind you, "Defiance" presents an exaggerated view of this), their imagery will always be a part of my childhood, and therefore I will always have a soft spot in my heart for a movie like this, despite the racial overtones. At the same time, I have always liked urban vigilante movies, and the sight of seeing pissed-off white men battling black and/or Latino thugs is something that, for better or for worse, goes with the territory.