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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look66.67%
Average: 8.33%
Pretty Bad: 8.33%
Total Crap: 16.67%

1 review, 6 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"Flawed but Entertaining"
4 stars

Far from a box-office smash, it's developed a bit of a cult following over the years.

Blue-collar worker Eddie Marino is a Brooklyn family man and homeowner just trying to get by. He's a mechanic who drives the same beat-up gray van to work every day and puts in a good day's week for good-but-not-great pay; he's having to put in more overtime at the job lately, and his family -- which consists of wife Vickie (Rutanya Alda) and pre-teen son Scott (Dante Joseph) -- is starting to feel the emotional burden of his longer absences. Eddie's a basic Everyman: middle-aged, balding, unassuming, and a bit regretful over past potential he's let go to seed -- it's his being exactly right for his job that nags at him, because it's the best he can do and not quite enough to give his family the better life he wants for them. Oscar-nominee Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) plays Eddie and endows him with an understated humility that convinces us of both the character's innate sense of decency and pride; instead of inappropriately making the character overly vivid, Forster modulates Eddie's various emotional tones so they give off impressions without feeling spelled-out to us. There isn't a whisper of artifice in the performance, and the only reason it's likely to be undervalued is because nothing blatantly sticks out from it to the degree that you're made aware of it as a piece of "acting" -- which is a major asset in a character who's basically been written as a nondescript. It's important that we see Eddie as a mirror image of ourselves as his docile existence is soon shattered by a tragedy involving the brutal assault on his wife and shooting death of his son at the hands of a vicious street gang. To make matters worse, the lead member (a frightening Willie Colon), after being arrested, has his meager two-year sentence suspended, and the judge then sentences Eddie to sixty days in jail for contempt of court. When he gets out, Eddie wants revenge, and he's willing to go at it the unorthodox way: he joins up with four of his co-workers (who've formed a group to "clean up" their neighborhood) to impose a harsh sentence on the culprits responsible.

A knockoff of Michael Winner's 1974 box-office smash Death Wish (which showcased Charles Bronson in his career-defining role as vengeful architect Paul Kersey), William Lustig's Vigilante is a crude, obvious piece of exploitation that's about as subtle as a wet-T-shirt contest yet just as acceptable. With the villains portrayed as one-dimensional cretins and the heroes as do-gooder knights, the film isn't exactly teeming with emotional and social complexities; it merely fastens upon basic human responses and beliefs to serve as a clinched fist of celluloid that holds in contempt an American justice system perceived as favoring the rights of the accused over the victim's. No matter how many times we've seen variations of this, the topic remains irresistible enough because it's both an ever-timely one and one that's easily identifiable -- you don't have to have been a victim nor related to one to be outraged by violent crime. The vigilantes here target not only the street-crime element (like a rooftop rapist and drug peddler -- both of whom are assaulted but not killed) but a bigwig crime kingpin (a sleazy Peter Savage) who's currently under a RICO investigation and avers he's simply a legitimate businessman guilty of being successful. And depicted as no better than the street scum is the defendant-leaning judge (Vincent Beck, who, being the ranking member of the SAG at the time, ironically contributes the film's worst performance) and a seedy defense attorney (a wonderfully seedy Joe Spinell, who played the title role in Lustig's Maniac) who takes his retainers in cash and holds client conferences in public rest rooms. Lustig and screenwriter Richard Vetere swing a wide net and, more often than not, manage to succeed; and even if more complexly related issues (like, say, the overburdening of court dockets and overpopulated prisons) aren't sufficiently delved into, the filmmakers manage to catch the tail end of them enough to briefly resonate. While these broad strokes invalidate the film as something of contextual merit, it nonetheless keeps it from being weighted down with high-minded solipsism -- it's given lots of artistic leeway due to its willingness not to aspire to much.

Vigilante is fast-paced and particularly well-framed in 2.35:1 widescreen by a director who demonstrated a knack for atmospheric, claustrophobic 1.85:1 compositions in Maniac (his previous feature). While the action is opened up considerably more this time around, Lustig still manages to make his protagonist feel overwhelmed by his surroundings, whether it's Eddie seeming dwarfed by the long and wide urban landscapes, his maneuvering around a crowded city-court building, his brief stint within the confines of a maximum-security prison, he always seems at odds with his environment, as if its gritty textures were threatening to suck the life right out of him. And Eddie's progression from law-abiding citizen to law-breaking vigilante is unlayered rather patiently; he takes some time contemplating both the legal and moral ramifications, questioning if he'll be any better than the scum he'll be retaliating against. His prison time clears this dilemma up, and not because he's reached a comfortable moral ground but because he begins to see injustice as being citizen-blind. (His wife leaving him because she blames his working too much as the reason he wasn't home to defend his family propels him even further to seek violent retribution.) The film rides its controversial subject matter rather than delving into it with much insight, but, again, it's forgivable because the filmmakers aren't grandiosely reaching for the stars; they're wise enough not to get in over their heads with complexities they're not prepared to fully deal with. Vigilante may be shallow, but it's not particularly nihilistic (a descriptive leveled against Maniac, where Lustig expected the audience to get a kick out of the killings); the violence is ugly and brutal, and even when the villains start having the tables turned on them (with the bruises and broken bones being inflicted on them for a change), there's little glorification of it (one of the beatings occurs off-screen, and Eddie's post-murder mood is far from triumphant).

Yet the film isn't as enjoyable as it should be, and most of the blame falls squarely on Lustig's shoulders. While he's to be excused for the underwhelming prison sequences -- the writing there is just bad, even though the phenomenal presence of screen legend Woody Strode (Spartacus) manages to add some much-needed spark -- the action sequences are awkwardly staged and disappointingly ho-hum. A foot chase where a vigilante pursues a dope dealer over fences, a rooftop, and the second floor of an abandoned building lacks any kind of tension and spatial cohesion; we hardly see both of them in the same shot, and the use of slow-motion and overuse of medium close-ups deprives the chase of building up any momentum. (Jay Chattaway's accompanying score is ten times more livelier than what it's trying to accentuate.) There's also a clunky French Connection-like car chase near the end where Eddie goes after the punk who shot his son, resulting in a good five-minute screen display of demolition derby; but the shots are held a good second too long, and the spatial cohesion is (again) so off you're not sure how Eddie knows to turn down a particular street after the guy when he clearly can't see where he went. (Lustig also passes up a moment for potential comedy: When Eddie jumps out of his van with the ignition still on and briefly runs after the guy before commandeering a vehicle, it would have been nifty had someone quickly leapt into his van and taken off.) But the nadir is definitely the home invasion, where Eddie's wife and son are attacked; somehow, even with five attackers surrounding her in the living room, the wife manages to escape into the back yard (we don't see enough overlay coverage to see how she manages this), and just so a brief bit of (failed) suspense can be attempted with someone leaping out at her from behind a clothesline of white sheets. (Eight years later, Lustig would display vast improvement with his spectacularly staged action in Maniac Cop 2.)

Vigilante is a prime example of zenith manipulation, and it makes no apologies for this. It's simply out to serve up feasible, identifiable situations for the audience to respond to on an elemental subjective level. While this isn't exactly a high aesthetic accomplishment, it's good enough given the sub-genre it's working in -- unlike, say, James Glickenhaus' atrociously executed, emotionally aloof The Exterminator and John Schlesinger's unfocused and choppy Eye For an Eye. And there's a kick to be had from watching ex-blaxploitation star Fred Williamson (Black Caesar) in quintessential overacting mode as the ringleader of the vigilantes; bulging his eyes and spitting out "Punk!" with the psyched-out force of Shaft on amphetamines, he's lurid yet dazzling. (It's disappointing, though, that Williamson's grabber of an introductory scene -- where he instructs a roomful of crime-plagued neighbors to "Take back what's yours!" -- is more or less irrelevant being that we never see how all of the community's vigilantes operate within an organization, so the story doesn't really seem grounded in anything.) The film lacks the beautiful narrative simplicity of Michael Winner's Death Wish (the subplot here involving the tracking down of the crime kingpin, which is interwoven with Eddie's prison time, comes off like an after-thought -- though it results in a hell of a gore effect that had to be trimmed to avoid an X rating) and the smooth professionalism of Death Wish (some of Lustig's scenes are shaped perfectly, while others lack definition and dramatic focus), but it's lean and swift and just dumb enough to enable you to forgive it for its crudeness while never taking itself didactically off the deep end, though its tendency to overstate what wouldn't be normally stated occasionally threatens to. If I'm not making Vigilante out to be the greatest thing since sliced bread (how I've dreaded the day I'd find myself using that expression), that's because the filmmakers never intended it to be. On an undemanding level, it delivers; on a higher artistic one, it's negligent but still passable.

Good for a rainy Saturday afternoon rental.

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originally posted: 09/14/03 10:08:01
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User Comments

8/30/11 mr.mike Decent Death Wish ripoff , Forster is always a plus. 4 stars
10/01/09 Sugarfoot A great Death Wish rip off, manipulative but well made and enjoyable. 4 stars
3/23/09 Josie Cotton is a goddess Lame. 2 stars
6/12/06 Jackie Breu Well, the movie is a piece of tork, its not really wort watching. 1 stars
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  02-Mar-1983 (R)



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