Thieves, Pimps, Prostitutes, Muggers and Drug Dealers Beware!
Philadelphia delicatessen owner John D’Angelo (Tom Skerritt) has grown tired of watching his proud city descend into violent crime, and after the splashback affects him twice in a very short timespan, he looks to the police force for help. They are stretched too thin to effectively handle the problem, so John forms his own force: the People’s Neighborhood Patrol. Ostensibly a neighborhood watch type of program, John and the other members of the PNP actually utilize increasingly violent (and illegal) tactics to clean up their side of town. They become criminals to combat the criminals, fighting fire with fire. They are vigilantes, and they are the law.
This DEATH WISH-inspired action flick isn’t the most original take on the genre, but it’s a pretty interesting one. It offers a grim and gritty glimpse into 1980s life, and it all unfolds in Philadelphia when most films would place the action in New York. A strong cast helps us forget that these aren’t very sympathetic characters, and their performances prevent us from being pulled out of the moment. A flawed finale, mixed messages, and some outdated racial stereotypes are slightly difficult to get past.
John D’Angelo might be a more sympathetic character if he weren’t so damned manic. He’s either yukking it up obscenely with the other annoying townies who can’t seem to take anything seriously, or he’s spitting out invectives with a fierce intensity that threatens to boil over into madness. We feel worse for his wife Lisa (Patti LuPone), who has to put up with his quest for vengeance and his salami sandwich day job, both of which are put before his family far too many times.
The pimp who jumpstarts his little crusade is a black man named Eldorado (Pete Richardson), a slick and cruel little slimeball who isn’t in the film throughout but portrays a constant menace. To D’Angelo, he is street crime personified, and the streets will not be cleaned until he is taken off of them; and the nearby park, home to every vice imaginable, is representative of Eldorado’s hold on the neighborhood. The park is meant to be symbolic, unfortunately it never has the opportunity to reach the level of meaningfulness that the filmmakers obviously hope for.
Also lingering out there is Ivanhoe Washington (Yaphet Kotto), African American leader of a movement similar to D’Angelo’s own—though Washington thinks of himself as a community leader and not a vigilante. Washington disapproves of D’Angelo’s methods and believes that he’s harboring a bit of racism—a belief that he goes to great pains to prove. FIGHTING BACK raises the question of race, but never once attempts to answer it. Perhaps it’s a question that can not be answered, and it is enough that it was even addressed.
More than likely, though, FIGHTING BACK just isn’t entirely sure how to answer the question. It doesn’t even seem all that sure how to ask it—though kudos to them for giving it a shot, I suppose. Quickly enough it’s tossed aside and forgotten about in favor of the action chugging forward. The news footage that plays during a few key scenes, a montage of actual violent tragedies that begin with the JFK assassination, is perhaps meant to inspire discussion and stir up deep thoughts, as well, but taken in the context of what is basically an exploitation movie, it just seems, well, exploitative. It’s a snuff movie unfolding within, like FACES OF DEATH used as a meta-construct. It’s strange that in fiction, it’s the real that is most exploitable.
FIGHTING BACK has an oddly upbeat ending, which doesn’t just go against its exploitation roots, but also cancels out any questioning of D’Angelo and his methods. Not only is the park cleaned up and safe for the children to play in once again, but D’Angelo is actually elected City Councilman. Blowing up pimps is good business, any way you slice it!
When I was a kid, reading the books of Ian Ludlow (later revealed to be Lee Goldberg), obsessing over the adventures of Rorschach in Watchmen, and keeping my fingers crossed that Tone Loc would show up on this week’s episode of ROC, vigilantism felt like a genuine career choice. In my mind, though, it was almost always a solitary endeavor. Catching FIGHTING BACK one single time on late night cable made me see that vigilantism was possible in groups, too; that the Punisher could lead an entire Punisher Force, if he had wanted to (but thank God he didn’t want to). It may be safer to patrol the streets in teams, but it’s not quite as interesting, either. D’Angelo did drive a modified vehicle that basically amounted to a tank, though, so he gets an extra point or two for his take on the Batmobile.
That’s not to say that FIGHTING BACK is an uninteresting movie. Actually, it’s quite the opposite, and the fact that D’Angelo runs an organized—and quite public—vigilante group instead of taking on the underworld alone prevents this from being just another DEATH WISH clone (though there still remain a number of startling similarities). The notion of a downtrodden everyman fighting back against the rising tide of street crime is a very 1980s concept, and always proves to be a fascinating counterpoint to the high finance yuppies that are otherwise associated with the decade. Had somebody found a way to effectively combine the two worlds into one cinematic offering, they would have had something very special.
The script for FIGHTING BACK was written by Thomas Hedley, Jr. and David Zelag Goodman, both of whom have some more well-known credits on their filmographies. Hedley, for instance, also contributed to 1983’s FLASHDANCE, while Goodman scripted episodes of television’s THE UNTOUCHABLES (1960-1963), wrote the screenplay for STRAW DOGS (1971) with director Sam Peckinpah, LOGAN’S RUN (1976), and THE EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978) with John Carpenter. It was directed by Lewis Teague, just two short years after the John Sayles-scripted ALLIGATOR (1980), which has previously been covered.
The executive producer of this film was Dino De Laurentiis whose career has already been glossed over in my write-up of ORCA (1977). De Laurentiis also produced the previously-mentioned DEATH WISH, but he had no desire to do the sequels. Instead, he sold the rights to outside concerns and released FIGHTING BACK the same year that DEATH WISH II hit the screens.
You know, so as to not repeat himself.