You’re Not Safe Anymore…
Fed up with the rampant street violence and the police force’s inability to do much of anything about it, blue collar worker Nick (Fred Williamson) rallies his coworkers Burke and Ramon (Richard Bright and Joseph Carberry) into a vigilante group. This scenario forms the backbone of the film, but the heart belongs to Eddie Marino (Robert Forster), who seeks vengeance for a crime against his family by the Headhunters street gang.
The odd structure and off-kilter pacing of VIGILANTE may put some people off, and a bit of excessive splatter may push the limits of taste, but there is an awful lot to love here, too. Beyond the solid performances by genre stalwarts, there’s a grim and gritty atmosphere laying thick over the entire proceedings, with plenty of blown-out locations on display. There is an amusing foot chase and an exciting car chase, and plenty of violence in between.
VIGILANTE is often dismissively referred to as a DEATH WISH knockoff, but that’s not entirely fair. This is an exploitation picture, and it’s unlikely that the filmmakers were trying to exploit the success of a movie that had been released nearly a decade before. No, for what it’s worth, VIGILANTE is probably a DEATH WISH 2 knockoff, which had been released only the year prior and was likely still making the rounds theatrically.
Like many exploitation independents of the era, VIGILANTE has something of a strange structure. Films like this were not products of the Hollywood studio system, and the creators were not exactly classically trained in the three-act structure. These filmmakers were acting almost purely on gut and instinct, eschewing the timeworn rule book in exchange for something a little more fringe. This results in a film that is potentially of great interest because you never know precisely where it’s going or how it’s going to get there. It’s impossible for these films to go off the rails, because there never were any rails to begin with.
For instance, when Eddie is sent away to prison for an entire month, we can’t say we predicted that was going to happen. This is, ostensibly, his movie and yet he’s separated from it for a sizable chunk of the running time. It’s almost as if he was sentenced to another film entirely—some unfinished prison movie with all the usual tropes. The supporting characters are left to strut through the filthy city streets, beating up thugs and drug dealers as a means to justify this VIGILANTE’s title. No, these vigilantes working their way up from a simple street pusher to an untouchable political kingpin doesn’t have anything to do with the story proper, but they have to do something while Eddie is fighting off rapists behind bars.
VIGILANTE was written by Richard Vetere, who is better known as a playwright. It was directed by William Lustig in between a pair of his more popular films, MANIAC (1980) and MANIAC COP (1988).
Robert Forster is always solid and dependable, and although there are some that criticize his performance as being emotionless, I find it a believable combination of shock, grief, and guilt. He took this role on a few years after ALLIGATOR (1980), and is still concerned with his receding hairline here. The man’s career received an abbreviated going-over on our review of that film, so check that out if you’re interested.
Fred Williamson really gives it his all, counteracting Forster’s low-key approach with an arch exuberance that may occasionally be over-the-top but is always entertaining; and if anybody can get away with this, it’s him—he’s a sheer badass and cool as hell. He’s a former football player turned actor who can be found in many a cult flick—a fair number of them in the blaxploitation mold. Interested parties may want to check out HAMMER (1972), BLACK CAESAR (1973), HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973), THREE THE HARD WAY (1974), BUCKTOWN (1975), THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978), 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1982), ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (1996), and just about anything else on his impressive filmography.
Also included in the cast: musician Willie Colón; Rutanya Alda (THE DEER HUNTER, 1978; WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, 1979); Joe Spinell (MANIAC, 1980); Carol Lynley (BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING, 1965); and Woody Strode (SPARTACUS, 1960); Peter Savage, who played Thomas Stokes, died shortly after filming, and the closing credits dedicate the movie to his memory.
Keep him in mind as you zone out to the soothing strains of an ass-kicking good time.