Fred Williamson & Robert Forster Clean Up the Grimy Streets of 1980's NYC !!
"You're not safe anymore...And there's no way to stop them."
After the release of his nihilistic horror classic MANIAC in 1980 producer/director William Lustig turned his attention toward the box office-friendly genre of urban action/revenge. Kickstarted by DEATH WISH in 1974 the genre also had roots with 1971's DIRTY HARRY which although featuring a police figure in the title role, it portrayed him a lone vigilante striking against useless courts and ineffectual police (both of which would be played up in the coming decades in DEATH WISH along with its many offspring).
If there ever was a fertile setting for this genre it was NYC in the '70s and '80's as the city was awash in blight, out of control crime with dirty & dangerous streets and a police force that was still reeling from corruption scandals in the early '70s. In addition to DEATH WISH, out of this toxic brew emerged THE EXTERMINATOR (1980), MS. 45 (1981), the criminally unavailable NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER (1980) among almost countless others (and leaving the confines of NYC) including the innumerable DEATH WISH sequels and Italian efforts such as VIOLENT ROME (1975) and MANHUNT IN THE CITY (1975).
Released in 1983 VIGILANTE seems to be more of a throwback to the previous decade and although there's no doubt that Lustig and screenwriter Richard Vetere drew some inspiration from DEATH WISH they created something much more brutal and nihilistic here. Whereupon DEATH WISH showed a violent and dangerous urban environment, it also portrayed a dependable & professional (albeit pragmatic) police force and city that while crime-ridden was still livable.
VIGILANTE shows a New York City more in line with such post-apocalyptic Italian films such as 2019:AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK and 1990:THE BRONX WARRIORS as it shows an urban landscape where the lawless element seems totally in control as citizens cower in fear and the police and judicial forces are looked upon as worthless by both the criminals and victims. It's also interesting to note that while DEATH WISE showed its main character in the form of Charles Bronson to be a rather affluent upper-middle-class white-collar guy, the ongoing films in this genre mostly present the main protagonist(s) as working-class blue-collar types.
Opening with Fred Williamson breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience as he extols to us the viewers that we need to arm ourselves and take back the streets while the films cut to a line of ordinary citizen types blasting away on a shooting range, all of which when combined with the guitar and synth-driven pounding score must have had the 42nd St. audiences rising out of their seats while cheering and wildly pumping their fists in the air.
The camera pulls back and we see Williamson addressing a group of people seated in a room. Playing Nick, he's the local organizer of a type of "neighborhood watch" although it quickly shown that they take their job very very seriously (without a lot of "watching"). Along with his cohorts Burke (Richard Bright from GODFATHER I & II) and Ramon (Joseph Carberry NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER). they drive around in a tricked out 70's van and dispense justice to lowlifes who prey on the neighborhood. We're shown this in an early scene where an elderly resident identifies the perpetrator of a violent assault on a young woman (after claiming ignorance to the police) whereupon Nick and the boys throw him in the van and the next morning his dead body is found.
We're introduced to Eddie Marino (Robert Forster ALLIGATOR) a decent hard-working guy and family man with his wife Vickie (Rutanya Alda WHEN A STRANGER CALLS) and a small boy. Eddie is friends with the above mentioned Fred Williamson and co. Visiting their place of work one day they attempt to prod him into joining their group, but he declines believing that vigilantism will lead to the breakdown of society.
Later that same day Marino's wife and child have a confrontation with a local street gang led by "Rico" Melendez (musician Willie Colón) and "Pargo" (Don Blakely SHORT EYES). Following them home the gang viciously attacks Vickie and young child in a brutally beautifully shot sequence with Vickie running amongst billowing sheets in the backyard while screaming to no avail for help (after earlier being shrugged off by the police on the phone) while the young boy is viciously and bloodily killed by a shotgun - which although taking place off-screen is still one of the more brutal sequences in 70's cinema.
With his child dead and his wife near death, Eddie is contacted by a D.A. (Carol Lynley THE NIGHT STALKER) who is set to prosecute Rico for the crime. Unfortunately, the fix is in as the court system is totally corrupt as a slimy defense attorney (played to oily perfection by the great Joe Spinell) and a judge both make sure the case gets thrown out of court. An enraged Eddie throws himself at the judge and is tossed in jail for 30 days.
The plot takes a kind of odd turn at this point during the jail sequence. On one hand, you see it as the ultimate example of the corruption of the system and Eddie's final degradation bit it feels like something that was extended or added to the plot to increase the running time. In prison, we do however get Woody Strode as a fellow prisoner and protector of Eddie's, who even here at the age of 69 looks like he could still kick the ass of the entire cast (and probably even give Fred Williamson a run for his money).
During this time the neighborhood vigilante group has been busy as they work their way through the neighborhood drug industry and by moving up the corporate ladder discover city government involved in the narcotic traffics, which again leads into the plot point of corruption through the entire system. Eddie joins up with the vigilante group in order to track down his family's attackers. Although at this point the film would seem to be set up as a straight revenge finale, Lustig and Vetere slowly play with the conventions as they turn Eddie not into a revenge hungry killing machine, but as a conflicted man who goes through it not with a sense of satisfaction but hopefully just for closure with his now convalesced wife refusing to live with him,
A favorite of Lustig's, Forster is excellent here, but he's overshadowed by Williamson's larger than life persona as Fred jumps into his role with gusto, preforming is own stunts and making one truly believe that he could take on 1980's NYC by himself. Also because of the narration sequence, Forster's Eddie fades into the background at several points and at times it almost feels like we're watching two different movies, but Lustig (who as never really gotten the credit he deserves for being a truly fine filmmaker) keeps us so engrossed in the story and action that its not much of a hindrance. Shot in 2.35:1 Panavision VIGILANTE is a beautiful looking production with the widescreen photography giving the film an epic look that belies its low budget origins (and nobody can shot pre-Giuliani dirty & grungy NYC like Lustig).
Along with a nicely edited and shot car chase, the film contains several sequences of brutal violence (even by 70's standards) as we see bloody shotgun blasts, bodies disintegrating by machine gun volleys, baseball bat beatings, stabbings and in one particular sequence a woman is shot and she violently flies backward through a bathroom door before landing in a bathtub.
All The Above Screen caps Are From The Blue Underground Blu -Ray