Is there anything more cinematically gratifying than seeing a pack of rabid, sadistic street punks getting exactly what they deserve on the alter of vigilante street justice? Probably, but I doubt many will argue the viscerally animalistic appeal of seeing some particular heinous thugs getting their heads handed to them vigilante style...which brings me to this film, Vigilante (1983), a relative late comer in the genre (who many believe started off with the very popular 1974 film Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson). Co-produced and directed by William Lustig (Maniac, Maniac Cop), who, incidentally, worked as an apprentice editor on the film Death Wish, Vigilante stars Robert Forster (Alligator, Jackie Brown) and exploitation film veteran Fred `The Hammer' Williamson (Mr. Mean, 1990: The Bronx Warriors). Also appearing is Rutanya Alda (The Deer Hunter), Richard Bright (The Godfather: Part III), Don Blakely (Brubaker), Joe Spinell (Forbidden Zone, Maniac), Carol Lynley (The Poseidon Adventure), Frank Pesce (Midnight Run), Steve James (The Exterminator), and legendary actor Woody Strode (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), who was pushing 70 at the time this movie was made, and looked about as fit as most men half his age.
As the film, touted as the `unrated director's cut', begins we see Fred Williamson's character (later we learn his name is Nick), laying it down for a group of people (and the audience) about how punks have taken over the streets. One gets a sense that he's `mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore'..."If you want your city back, you gotta take it! Dig it?!" Next we witness a woman suffering an attack as she returns home to her apartment building, then later we see the same thug on a street corner bragging about how lame the `system' is and how he'll never do any real time, which is about when Nick and a couple of other fellow pull up in a boogie van, unceremoniously snatch the perpetrator off the street (he was identified by a neighbor of the woman), and speed away (later we found out he got the beating, but good). After this we see scenes of Eddie Marino (Forrester), his wife Vickie, and their young son in a park, and they seem like a happy enough family, enjoying a modest existence...that is until a few days later when Vickie gets on the wrong side of some street punks, who end up following her home committing various acts of vile, unrestrained nastiness. The leader of the gang is caught and brought to trial, but due to criminally inept and corrupt system, the malicious mug gets off with probation, to which Eddie flies off the proverbial handle and gets himself thrown into jail under contempt of court charges (talk about adding insult to injury). Anyway, Eddie gets out, hooks up with Nick and his vigilante posse for some much needed retributory, skull-cracking violence and mayhem (it's so wrong, but it feels good).
While there are some very striking similarities to the film Death Wish, Vigilante, which was shot on location in New York, giving it a gritty sense of authenticity, surpasses that film in the aspect of graphic violence, but is it better? Hard for me to say, but it is just as enjoyable, despite a few perceived flaws. Robert Forrester presents a strong character, but he didn't seem all that put out after his family was brutalized...perhaps this is how is was meant to be, as he virtually exploded in court when the gang leader got off with a slap on the bum...still, it seemed odd, the lack of emotion give what happened (maybe it was a state of shock). It is interesting to watch his nearly unbelievably naïve character transform into a vengeance filled, borderline psychotic in a relatively short period of time. As far as Williamson goes, well, his character is pretty much the same as just about anything I've seen him in...is that bad? Not really, as I suppose a lot of that has to do with typecasting, but at least he's had plenty of opportunities to get it down, and can pound punks with the best of them. There are some great supporting roles especially from Joe Spinell, who plays the sleazy defense attorney (he has little screen time, but makes an impression), and Woody Strode, a convict who helps Eddie preserve the sanctity of his Hershey highway while in prison (there's a great sequence in here with Strode dishing out a serious hurting on two punks half his age). There's plenty of escalating violence in this film once things get moving, some of it quite graphic and visceral...there was even one scene this seriously desensitized viewer found quite shocking...I won't tell you which one (but if you've seen the film, you probably know what I'm talking about. The story bounces back and forth between the characters of Eddie and Nick, basically two sides of the coin, until Eddie realizes the only way he's going to get what he wants is through Nick's hands on approach to dealing with street crime. There's some superficial claptrap about the morality of street justice, but I hardly thought the film was interested in getting hot and heavy on the philosophical aspects, especially in terms of how the poorly legal system was portrayed (lazy, ineffectual, corrupt), its inclusion more related to something to drive the plot, rather than a focal point within the film...by the way, that trial was a complete joke, and that prosecutor, played by Ms. Lynley, was about the most useless I've ever seen...no wonder the gang leader, who had 22 prior arrests, had never been convicted...oh, she'd say it was because witnesses were too intimidated to come forth, but if that were true, the case would've never gone to trial in the first place as there wouldn't have been enough evidence (I'm not a lawyer, but I play one on TV)...I suppose if the judges were corrupt, she could make an argument for her inability to actually prosecute criminals, but watching her in the courtroom I got the sense she was just really sucky at her job. Overall the story is slightly uneven and a little superficial, but the pacing is tight and the film doesn't wear out its welcome keeping a lean running time (just under 90 minutes, but it felt shorter). The ending felt odd and abrupt, and left a few questions unanswered...I couldn't help feel that perhaps this was the intent, but then I wonder if I'm giving the story more credit in that aspect than it deserves as it tended to simplify a number of elements within the storyline, going for the easy, stereotypical view (especially of the lackadaisical justice system), rather than delving into the real issues that result in perceived injustices (or is it injusti? I can't recall).
Anchor Bay Entertainment provides an excellent widescreen (2.35:1), enhanced for 16X9 TVs, picture on this DVD, along with better than expected audio, available in Dolby Digital Surround 2.0 or Dolby Digital 6.1 DTS: ES. Special features are numerous including a commentary track with director Lustig, and actors Robert Forrester, Fred Williamson, and Frank Pesce. Also included are 7 theatrical trailers (including international ones), 4 radio spots, 4 TV spots, a promotional reel used to help initially finance the film, a still gallery, and 5X7 reproduction of the original theatrical poster art. All in all, a superior release of a decent film.