AKA: Street Gang
Director: William Lustig
Writer: Richard Vetere
Producer: Andrew W. Garroni, William Lustig
Cast: Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, Richard Bright, Rutanya Alda, Don Blakely, Joseph Carberry, Willie Colón, Joe Spinell, Carol Lynley, Frank Pesce, Steve James, Woody Strode
Running Time: 90 min.
Vigilante opens with a scene of Fred Williamson (From Dusk Till Dawn, the original Inglorious Bastards) addressing a ‘neighborhood watch’-style meeting but more or less pointing his finger at the camera, as he explains how the streets have been taken over by gangs and it’s high time the community did something about it. If the police and the legal system can’t protect us, he argues, we’ve got to protect ourselves – by any means necessary. His speech is intercut with shots of concerned citizens practicing their aim at a firing range. This scene is completely awesome… and yet it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.
Despite his considerable oratorical skills, Fred Williamson doesn’t seem to get his neighbors too excited about fighting crime. Vigilante is really concerned with Robert Forster’s character and his journey to take criminal punishment into his own hands. It’s a plot that will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen a Death Wish movie. Forster plays a factory worker who lives in a not-so-good neighborhood of New York but remains fairly ignorant to the violence that goes on outside his front door. All that changes until his wife and son are targeted by a vicious street gang. A lot of bad shit goes down and Forster eventually ends up in prison. It’s a short stay and once he’s back on the streets, he remembers Fred Williamson’s words and decides it’s high time for some vigilante-style justice.
Director William Lustig was famous in the 80′s for making squalid and gritty films set in the worst parts of New York City. In 1980, he unleashed Maniac on the world – one of the sleaziest horror films ever made, starring the great Joe Spinell (The Godfather: Part II, Rocky) in the lead role. Spinell has a short appearance in Vigilante, which Lustig made before embarking on the Maniac Cop series.
There are a few films from the 70′s and 80′s that make New York City during that era look like one of the worst places in America to live. Vigilante is one of them. The sky is gray, the streets are dirty, muggers and rapists lurk around every corner. There are only 2 cop cars on patrol on nights when the city needs 10. The legal system can’t do jack because of slimy lawyers and holier-than-thou judges. Watch Vigilante, and you start feeling the self-righteous anger of a concerned citizen – you really want to see Fred Williamson take out the trash. We are clearly in exploitation movie territory here. And you know what? It feels good!
The only thing that holds Vigilante back is the performances. Fred Williamson is great – it’s probably the most impressive performance of his career – but most everyone else in the cast is way too low-key. I know this isn’t exactly an Oscar-nomiated, A-grade film but come on: if your movie features little kids being shot down like animals, I want to see some intensity! Robert Forster and the actress who play his wife just don’t “bring it” during their dramatic scenes. When Forster is nearly assaulted in the prison showers by an inmate the size of a mountain, he fails to communicate the fear and trauma you would feel in such a situation.
During its last act, Vigilante becomes a nearly wordless action picture so I suppose the performances become less of an issue. There’s a car chase through the streets of Brooklyn that’s really quite spectacular considering the low-budget origins of the film. I doubt Lustig had permission to close off city blocks to shoot the chase but the filmmakers did a good job through careful editing. Nothing beats an old-school chase where the bottoms of cars are literally slamming against the pavement. One of my favorite moments of the film comes when Forster finally corrals the guy who killed his son and threatens to toss him from a great height to his death. “Go ahead, man!” the punk yells in Forster’s face. “It don’t mean shit to me!” Whoa. That’s some intense, nihilistic stuff right there.
Vigilante features great direction from William Lustig and a well-paced script full of memorable dialogue. The score by Jay Chattaway (Missing in Action, Silver Bullet) is funky and melodic; a good fit for the film. I just wanted more authenticity from some of the cast members. Even if it’s not a prestige picture, you need actors to sell the drama of the story. When characters remained unphased by even the most brutal of happenings, it just takes me out of the movie. Thankfully, Fred Williamson brought his A-game to this picture. He’s off the charts on the bad-ass scale, so I can at least recommend Vigilante if you like exploitative revenge movies (Death Wish, etc.). The video transfer on Blue Underground’s blu-ray release of the film is exceptional, as is always the case for Blue Underground.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 6.5/10