Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Vigilante aka Street Gang (1983)
Dir. William Lustig
Starring Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, Joe Spinelli

It works as a movie advertisement and a Ronald Reagan campaign poster!

    VIGILANTE is a particularly mean, nasty sonofabitch of a film in the DEATH WISH mold, where an average guy has to take revenge upon the no good rotten punks who run rampant in this city. What makes it more interesting to us than your average DEATH WISH ripoff is that it was directed by reliable sleazeball and former porno director William Lustig (MANIAC, MANIAC COP 1-3*) and stars badass extraordinaire Fred Williamson and stoic hardass extraordinaire Robert Forster. So you pretty much know right away that even though this film isn’t gonna reinvent the genre of anything, it’ll pack a little more punch than your average vigilante joint.

    And pack a punch it does. Everything in the DEATH WISH playbook is punched up to an inflated version of its already ridiculous levels, from the violence to the chases to the sadism of the criminals to its sociological implications. The original DEATH WISH hoodlum gang included Jeff Goldblum, so in order to top that level of villainousness Lustig and co. have to create no-goodnicks that are literally a cornucopia of anxieties for middle class America in the 80s. They’re a gang of militant, interracial, co-ed, free-loving, anarchist druggie communist hippie psycho killers. So Charles Manson, Gloria Steinem, and the Black Panthers all put together, with a smattering of those violent street punks which exist in 80s action movies but nowhere else in history. I’m not sure if it’s established that they’re atheists, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

Oh my God, Archie Bunker was right!
One day, Robert Forster’s wife comes across this gang harassing an elderly gas station attendant by dousing him in his own gas, and yells at them about it. For the crime of interfering with random street harassment, they follow her back to her house where they sadistically beat her and probably rape her (though the movie is uncharacteristically discreet on this last point). So far so good, but come on, you can’t really get too mad at them just for beating up a guy’s wife; after all, this is basically her fault for getting all judgy about an innocent plot to torch an old man at his place of business. Come on VIGILANTE, that’s all you got? Hell, his worrisomely adorable little blond son even got away and hid upstairs!

Only, he didn’t really hide all that well.

So one of the punks walks upstairs and sees the son’s head silhouetted behind the shower curtain where he’s hiding. So shit, now they’re gonna kidnap his son? Nope. The guy fucking shotguns the kid’s head right out the fucking window.

All right, you’ve got my attention.

But it gets even crueler, see? Because Robert Forster is a law-abiding, minding-his-own business type of guy, and even when approached by Fred Williamson to join his friendly neighborhood vengeance posse he politely declines and chooses to trust in our system of democratic law and justice. So the cops catch the leader of the gang, haul him into court, and... his sleazy lawyer (Joe Spinelli, giving Sean Penn in CARLITO’S WAY a run for his money) gets the judge to cut him a deal for time served. The guy assaulted a housewife and was complicit in blowing the head off an adorable blonde child, and he walks. Forster doesn’t take this news well, attacks the judge, and finds that now he is going to jail for assault while his son’s killer walks free. Obviously he’s almost gonna be raped in prison, and then when he gets out he finds that his wife is so traumatized she doesn’t want anything more to do with him. So, when life gives you lemons, you turn to Fred Williamson and enlist the help of his revenge posse to make, I guess, some revengeanade. Which is coincidentally exactly what happens here.     

If Harry Dean Stanton had told this guy to avenge his death, RED DAWN would have been like 20 minutes long.

    One thing I appreciate, though, is that unlike DEATH WISH’s Paul Kersey, our protagonist here is a blue-collar, working-class schlub, as are the other vigilantes. Yeah, the depiction of the punks panders pretty obscenely to Reagan-era fears of minorities and countercultures, but at least we’re not asked to side with some rich white guy who regains his manhood by blowing away a bunch of black teenagers in the ghetto. Forester’s character Eddie Marino works at an auto-repair shop, enjoys drinks at a blue-collar dive, doesn’t want anything to do with politics and just wants to be left alone. Where the DEATH WISH sequels explicitly plays into 1980’s right wing fears about sociological collapse, Marino isn’t interested in politics and just wants revenge against the particular guys who ruined his life. They don’t hide behind a facade of trying to make the world a safer place or anything. Fred Williamson and his group may have their own opinions about the ineffectiveness of the justice system, but even when his family gets torn apart Marino doesn’t care about their goals, he just wants their help.

    The movie is also surprisingly clear about just how ruined his life is. DEATH WISH and its ancillary movies are very much about a wimpy liberal regaining his manhood by becoming a gun-toting avenger of white people who get mugged by poor (“urban”) people. Yeah, Kersey’s family gets hurt, but its a catalyst for him becoming a righteous badass, and we’re ultimately glad he makes the transformation. VIGILANTE depicts Marino as a guy who died inside the moment he found out his son was killed, and is now just a rage-fueled walking corpse, existing only to revenge himself against the people who wronged him. It’s not very fun, and it’s clearly not a good direction for him to go, personally. Even the other vigilantes seem kinda freaked out by his grim, dead-eyed focus on vengeance.   

    So on one hand, it avoids the uncomfortable sadistic qualities of violent fantasies like DEATH WISH and KICK-ASS, but on the other hand it’s not very... you know, fun to watch. Lustig seems to be going for more of a 70s crime thriller vibe than a Fred Williamson exploitation vehicle, but the content sits a little uneasily with that milieu. The look of the film is respectably gritty, but there are just a few too many genre excesses to really work as realism. It’s ridiculous enough that it would never work as a bleak drama about a broken man turning to violence, but also problematically honest about the fact that revenge isn’t going to solve any of Marino’s problems. So even though he does get some revenge, it’s not exactly emotionally satisfying. The movie successfully gets our blood lust going, and then bums us out by giving us something closer to truth than fantasy, but still not close enough to truth to have anything really intelligent to say about life. That said, the vengeance is at least handled stylishly, with a few great chases (including a car chase obviously modeled on THE FRENCH CONNECTION) and some memorable setpieces. 

    Overall, it has the pleasing aroma of a genre film with a little extra effort and thought, but in this case the rewards are somewhat minor. In fact, the most memorable part of the film is the pre-credit introduction, a genuinely propulsive and well-edited sequence where Fred Williamson lays out his philosophy as an army of grim-faced concerned citizens makes prodigious use of a firing range. Williamson can always be counted on for a good badass turn, and even though he mostly stays out of the spotlight here, he probably best conveys the best that VIGILANTE has to offer with his pleasing blend of outsized machismo and real-world grit. Like the movie, he’s a straightforward, mean, and efficient sonofabitch. But he’s a lot more fun to watch.

*The guy made 9 total non-porno film, and four of those have the word “Maniac” in the title. Which in my opinion deserves some sort of special congressional medal of valor.


  1. Psssssst. DEATH WISH came out in the 70's.

  2. Did I say somewhere that it wasn't? The original DEATH WISH was 1974, although interestingly DEATH WISH II preceded VIGILANTE by only a year. VIG takes the DEATH WISH model and kinda incorporates Reagan-era fears of sociological breakdown and random street punk violence, but still has an oddly 70s feel to it.

  3. You did use "Death Wish" and "80s anxieties" in the same sentence, but reading it closely, you'll see that you weren't actually implying that Death Wish was from the 80s. I think that's what Dan was referring to?

  4. Nah, you're right. I missed the word "sequels" in the sentence I was referencing. My bad.