Judge Chris Claro feels vengeance is a dish best served cold with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
"You're not safe anymore…"
Much of late twentieth-century New York was a graffiti-spattered hot zone that was frightening and dangerous. The "character" for which many current New Yorkers are so nostalgic was actually a pervasive seediness and rot that led to mugging, car theft, and random violence. Though it's easy in retrospect for longtime New Yorkers to romanticize the city of that era, particularly through the wayback machine of cinematic icons like Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, and even The Warriors, the not-so-long-ago New York was a place that thrummed with threat. And it was easy for filmmakers to discern that threat equals conflict equals drama.
The ne plus ultra of New York-as-nightmare cinema is, naturally, Michael Winner's Death Wish. Red meat for revenge seekers, the film was among the first to tap into the collective frustration and impotence of an increasingly cowed populous. Audiences cheered as Bronson blew away the creeps and cretins who were turning New York into a nightmare and the box office proved, even before Howard Beale exhorted them, that people were mad as hell and they…etc.
As Bronson shot his way through the next five increasingly preposterous Wishes, producer/director William Lustig (Maniac) who never met a zeitgeist into which he couldn't tap—or a hit he couldn't rip off—unleashed Vigilante. Playing to the same impulses of vengeance and retribution as Winner and Bronson did, Lustig's low-budget affair scrapped even the pretense of debate over lone justice in favor of cheap thrills, cheaper stunts and the lushly sculpted facial hair of Fred Williamson.
Facts of the Case
Eddie Marino (Robert Forster, Jackie Brown) is a blue-collar guy with a loving wife and a movie-cute son. After a home invasion leaves the missus injured, his boy dead, and the sneering perp walks with a suspended sentence, Eddie, having honed his chops doing a stretch for contempt served up by the corrupt judge, joins up with a band of street-justice vigilantes to make things right.
While it's not a beat-for-beat cribbing of Death Wish—Bronson's Paul Kersey was a comfortable Manhattan architect where workingman Eddie lives modestly in Queens—Vigilante slakes the same thirst for blood as its progenitor. Williamson's Nick, along with his buddies Burke (Richard Bright, The Godfather: Part II) and Ramon (Joseph Carbery, NYPD Blue), troll their neighborhood, on the prowl for ne'er-do-wells who have evaded the cops' grasp. Whether they're taking down dealers, rapists, or gangsters, Nick and co. feel they're doing the work the cops and court can't or won't do.
Although their intentions may be good, the movie in which they act on them isn't. Lustig was clearly working with a low budget—a fact he discusses in fascinating, entertaining detail with co-producer Andrew Garroni on one of the commentary tracks—but one would assume that a coherent script wouldn't be any more costly than the simplistic series of incidents that passes for the Vigilante screenplay. How, for example, does a rapist avoid the clutches of the police in broad daylight yet fall into the hands of three neighborhood-watch guys? How does even the most corrupt judge so blatantly allow a man accused of a horrific home invasion to get a suspended sentence? How does Carol Lynley (The Poseidon Adventure), in the most egregious miscasting of a court officer since Cindy Crawford in Fair Game, end up playing a prosecutor?
With its rampant b-movieness, Vigilante fairly screams to be sacrificed at the altar of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Whether its the music—a synth-heavy, atonal overscore that recalls someone pounding out some Bernard Herrmann with the sheet music upside-down—or the scenery-chewing of the cast—in addition to the Lynley Offense, Joe Spinell (Rocky) plays a sleazy lawyer who literally twirls his mustache—Vigilante is a hoot and a half.
It's also a great example of the depths to which creditable thespians such as Forster must sometimes sink to maintain their careers. When Tarantino resurrected Forster, rescuing the actor from a long period of direct-to-video films and one-off TV appearances, he jogged the audience's memory to Forster's charm and ability, very little of which are on display in Vigilante. Instead, Forster is called upon to play angry and angrier and doesn't get to show much range. But his professionalism and ease on screen does somewhat mitigate the waft of ham that emanates from Fred Williamson.
Ah, Williamson. Acting with all the delicacy of the defensive lineman he once was, the Hammer is all scowl and tight jeans. Biting into lines like "The books don't balance; we are a statistic!" as if they were caramel apples, Williamson supplants ability with intensity and makes one long for the subtlety and nuance of Fred Dryer or Brian Bosworth.
For such a low-rent film, Blue Underground has given Vigilante a first-class treatment that elevates it to something more than a by-the-numbers revenge thriller. Foremost, there are two commentary tracks, each featuring director/co-producer Lustig. On one, Lustig talks the nuts and bolts of independent filmmaking with co-producer Andrew Garroni. For anybody with even a passing interest in the business, the track is invaluable, with Lustig and Garroni joyfully recounting dozens of details, including the myriad ways they kept creditors at bay and why they cast Forster over Tony Musante (Oz).
The second commentary track is even more freewheeling, as Lustig reminisces with Williamson, Forster, and co-star Frank Pesce. Re-watching the movie alongside these guys doesn't improve the film's quality, but does make it a hell of a lot more fun. Full of anecdotes—such how Williamson got his Super Bowl ring back from a Harlem mugger—the track gets you inside the heads of the actors and gives some insight into their "process," such as it was.
Vigiliante looks and sounds much better than a movie of its caliber should, thanks to a brilliant Blu-ray transfer by Blue Underground. The colors are brilliant and nicely saturated and there is little to no grain in the frequent night shots. The DTS 7.1 soundtrack is crystalline, despite the intrusive cacophony of Jay Chattaway's score.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's no denying the entertainment value of Vigilante. The effort of the filmmakers and actors shines through, and though the film is predictable—or maybe because it's predictable—it's a painless way to spend 90 minutes.
The Blu-ray of Vigilante is like three movies in one. The first is cornball, derivative, and unintentionally hilarious. But watching a second time with the Lustig/Garroni commentary is like a master class in low-budget production techniques. And a third viewing, with the cast riffing on the film, is a buoyant flashback that's a joy to experience. For such a dumb movie, Vigilante is one smart Blu-ray.
Vigilante is found not guilty of being unwatchable, thanks to the recollections of its creators and stars.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
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