Written by Richard Vetere
Directed by William Lustig
William Lustig does Death Wish with Vigilante! Vigilante follows a reoccurring Lustig motif, namely the entire system is corrupt and things can only get accomplished when you take matters into your own hands. Vigilante is the most extreme example, but the entire Maniac Cop series works under the premise the corrupt system framed the Maniac Cop, and even Hit List features police unable to protect people or legally bring powerful mobsters to justice. Vigilante says that what you can’t trust the cops and courts to do, you can trust guns and fellow angry citizens to carry out.
I saw Vigilante at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in their Bay Area Now 7 program, under the Invasion of the Cinemaniacs! heading, specifically the part curated by Jesse Hawthorne Ficks of Midnite for Maniacs, who hosted two William Lustig triple features (a sextuple feature?) spread across two days. Vigilante screened between Maniac and Hit List, while the next night was all three Maniac Cop films. William Lustig himself was in attendance, and did some entertaining Q and As. Lustig is very charismatic and shared stories about filming and some of the actors/producers of his films. I’ve included some of what he mentioned in the reviews.
Eddie Marino (Robert Forster) was just a normal good working man with a family, until his family is violently attacked and destroyed by a mad gang. The cops are unable to bring more than one member to trial (citing lack of evidence), and the trial quickly goes south due to corrupt lawyers and judges forcing plea deals, meaning the gang leader gets a whole two year suspended sentence for assault and murder of a young child. When Marino is rightly outraged over this, he’s the one tossed in jail for contempt.
Eddie’s coworkers, lead by Nick (Fred Williamson), have formed their own vigilante group that works with the community to take out criminals and thugs that are threatening the neighborhood. At times, the group seems to have their own rival story going on, especially when Eddie is trapped in jail. Nick leads off the film with an awesome motivational speech where he discusses the violent crime wave in 1980s New York and how people are a statistic, and how they are morally obligated to fight back. A stalking rape filmed similarly to Maniac leads to the group abducting the attacker off the street in their van for some “justice”. The crew will spend a good portion of the first half of the film working their way up a drug supply chain and filling the film with cool action sequences. Fred Williamson really dangles a guy out a high window (no wires or nets!), a pimp in a hilarious outfit is beat down, and even a powerful businessman who is also a drug lord is no match for the squad. Upon his release, Eddie enlists the help of Nick and his group, and they start tracking down the gang who destroyed Eddie’s life.
Violent crime is something that you can’t just fix by blowing away the perpetrators. Eddie may get revenge, but he still doesn’t have his young son back, nor his wife who leaves him because of the trauma. Nick’s father was beaten so severely he needs help to walk and go to the bathroom. The populace is hurting, so it’s no mystery why they try to fight back. But the scars aren’t going to go away. Vigilante doesn’t pretend that things are going to suddenly be okay, it just shows cogs in the meat machine that is life getting blown out. New cogs are always appearing, the solution is to change the machine. That takes time and effort, and won’t solve things right now when a guy with a gun is breaking into your house. The film isn’t about changing society, and crime-ridden 1980s New York City is a completely different place from modern New York. It is a great time capsule into that period, and how society reacts. Vigilante was released a year before Bernhard Goetz and the subway shooting, and New York crime began declining in the 1990s. The gang in Vigilante look almost out of a dystopian science fiction film, you half expect them to be chasing after Mad Max. Vigilante even follows some of the same story beats as Mad Max.
Vigilante is packed with an awesome cast. Robert Forster is awesome as the family man who has everything taken from him. Fred Williamson is in the height of his badassery here, an unstoppable force of butt-kicking who is eager to sweep the filth from the streets. The great Woody Strode plays Eddie’s cellmate, who protects him from rapists and tells him to do whatever it takes to not get thrown back in prison. Of the villains, I can take or leave Willie Colón as the gang leader Rico, but Don Blakely’s Prago is amazingly crazed. Prago gleefully tracks and kills the small son of Eddie, and is so brash and arrogant in doing whatever he pleases, he doesn’t even recognize Eddie at first on the street, despite destroying his family and laughing at him in court. The great car chase sequence followed by the fight on the crane crosses the desperation of the two men, one trying to escape and the second focused on vengeance. The sequence is so well put together that it makes the little bit that follows it up seem like an afterthought.
Worth checking out for some fun action and revenge, Vigilante was my favorite film of the night. It provided a sense of purpose and twisted justice that Maniac lacked, while avoiding Hit List‘s slip into 90s DTV action mediocrity.
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