For me, nothing better showcases the exploitative tendencies of late ‘70’s/early 80’s action cinema like a good vigilante movie. Before there were seemingly unstoppable one-man-armies like John Rambo, John Matrix, and John McClane (hey, I just realized all three of those characters were named John!), waging war against terrorists, militias, and entire countries, we had guys like Travis Bickle, Paul Kersey, Rolling Thunder’s Major Charles Rane fighting private little wars against gangbangers, rapists, and thugs. There’s something extra gratifying about a good vigilante movie, and I can only imagine how empowering these films were back in the days when your average Joe was more worried about getting mugged than having a dirty bomb set off in their train station. After the success of Taxi Driver and Death Wish (and, to a degree, Dirty Harry, whose Harry Callahan many consider a vigilante, despite his carrying a badge, ), studios cranked out dozens of vigilante flicks, including The Exterminator, Vigilante Force and Defiance (both starring Jan-Michael Vincent), and William Lustig’s Vigilante, the latter of which now comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Blue Underground.
A young woman is raped in her apartment building, but, when the police come to investigate, no one’s talking. It’s not that her neighbors are afraid that the rapist will return; they just know that, in a time where the criminals outnumber the cops a hundred to one, if you want justice sometimes you have to go out and get it for yourself. That’s where Nick (Fred Williamson) and his boys come in. They’re sick of the riff-raff taking over their streets, and they’re taking the war to them, one punk at a time.
Over a few beers at the local watering hole, Nick and his friends are hassled by one of the local beat cops. He knows what they’ve been up to, even if he can’t prove it, and offers Nick a word of advice; leave fighting crime to the professionals. Eddie Marino (Robert Forster), their co-worker who, until then, was unaware of his friend’s nocturnal activities, agrees with the cop and feels that people taking the law into your own hands can only make things worse. Little does Eddie know that, while he’s been out drinking with the boys, his beloved wife and son have fallen victim to the same criminal element Nick and his friends have vowed to eliminate. Eddie returns home to find his little boy dead and his wife savagely beaten, but, even then, he’s secure in the knowledge that the justice system will see to it that the men responsible for this will be punished.
Fat chance. This is a vigilante movie, after all.
The leader of the gang that killed his boy is set free by a crooked judge, while Eddie finds himself behind bars for flying into a rage in the courtroom. While Eddie stews in prison, Nick and his friends continue the fight, busting heads and taking names. By the time Eddie is set free, he seeks out his friends, knowing now that the only justice his son will see will be that which comes of his own hand.
Vigilante is a bit of a departure from the typical vigilante formula. Usually these films revolve around a single character, much like Eddie, who loses someone close to them and then seeks revenge. Here, Lustig changes things up a bit, focusing more on the activities of Nick and his Lynch mob, and showing Eddie as not only a victim of the thugs who destroyed his family, but the criminal justice system that failed him. It’s a welcome respite from the de rigueur plot mechanics that usually drive these films, but, at the same time, seeing as how Nick does most of the work, we don’t get as much satisfaction when Eddie finally gets a chance to exact his revenge. It also feels a bit rushed as not only is Eddie’s revenge spree relegated to the last few minutes of the movie; he takes next to no time killing his victims. I mean, I get that Eddie is compromising his morals, here, but, c’mon; that guy wasted your four year old with a shotgun. At least show a little enthusiasm!
All that aside, I really do enjoy Vigilante. It’s a solidly entertaining piece of exploitative cheese, and a better-than-average example of the genre. Forster’s such a likeable actor and, with his basset hound eyes and affable nature, you really do feel for him, here. Williamson does what he does best, and that’s kick ass and chew scenery with the voraciousness of a school of piranha. The rest of the cast is what you’d expect from a low-budget exploitation knock-off, but we do get a nice Joe Spinnell (Maniac) cameo, where he struts his stuff as the despicable defense attorney who rigs Eddie’s case. Lustig wrangles a lot out of his meager budget, including an impressive car chase sequence, and shoots the film with an appropriately grungy grindhouse vibe.
The Blu-ray is presented in 2.35:1 and sports an impressive amount of detail that is evident early on. The scene in which the rapist flees the apartment building showcases subtle textures on the walls in the stairwell, even when half-bathed in shadow. Facial features are also well represented, with every pore and wrinkle accounted for. This is a really dark film, with much of the action taking place on dimly lit streets and shadowy rooms, but the transfer holds up quite well, with very solid blacks and great contrasting. Colors are vibrant, especially the blues of the gangbanger’s uniforms, while skin tones are uniform and accurate. There’s a fine cinematic grain present throughout, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is a bit of a mixed bag. I found the bass to be fairly robust – maybe too robust in that, during action sequences, it tended to drown out the comparatively weak dialogue. It’s nothing that playing the film at a higher volume won’t cure, but at, what I consider, an acceptable volume, I found myself straining to hear what was being said on occasion. Once again, no biggie, but it’s a nit to pick, dig?
Extras include two commentary tracks, my favorite of which has to be the track featuring Lustig, Forster, and Williamson. It’s a hugely entertaining listen, chockfull of breezy exchanges and informative reminiscences, and one I think fans will particularly enjoy. The other commentary is a far more technical track, featuring Lustig and producer, Andrew W. Garroni, but no less fascinating, especially for those looking for more by way of making-of observations. Other extras include Blue Underground’s customarily comprehensive set of promotional goodies, including trailers and radio spots, as well as a stills gallery.
While not as viscerally satisfying as some of the best vigilante flicks, Vigilante is still a solid example of its genre. I had a few personal issues with the audio (due to the fact that, having a small child, I’m often forced to watch films at lower volumes), but, overall, Blue Underground’s Blu-ray presentation is, as always, exceptional, and makes this an easy recommendation for fans of down and dirty exploitation cinema.