I recently read an article about the 1980s nostalgia being perpetuated by Stranger Things. There was a lot I didn't agree with, but the author grew up in a small town, and though Phoenix was a decent sized city by the middle of that decade, that was one thing I could relate to, although the portrayal of the decade he was perpetuating was somewhat clouded by a misunderstanding of how the economic collapse at the time was due to almost 20 years of mismanagement, including about half of it throwing resources at a useless war. As someone who appreciates history the second half of the 1980s were an amazing time to be alive, and even growing up in a working class family I didn't find it that bad after 1985.
One thing that was bad, and continued to be bad for a good part of the following decade, was the crime. Phoenix wasn't on the radar for most people (often overshadowed by - and largely suffering for envy for - Los Angeles), but it had many problems. Like any major metropolitan area there are areas that it is still best not to hang out after dark, but for a good part of the '80s and '90s that was a huge swath of the city, including where I grew up. When I finally moved out I had trouble sleeping the first few nights due to the lack of helicopters and weapons fire.
Bad as it was, we may as well have been living in paradise compared to other parts of the country. Detroit still hasn't recovered from that period of time, but the focus, being the largest city in the United States, was always on New York. If you want an idea of how much things have changed (and in many ways improved), just consider a movie like Mixed Blood, filmed in the Alphabet City neighborhood at a time when it looked like a post-nuclear wasteland. It is now a thriving, pretty much upscale neighborhood, bearing practically no resemblance to what is seen in the film.
It was from this stew of devastation and hopelessness that the idea of taking the streets back began. Death Wish came out in 1974, eight years before Vigilante, but its sequel came out the same year and writer/director William Lustig jumped at the chance to make his own revenge film as a follow-up to his mainstream debut, Maniac. If anything it is a bleaker vision of urban decay than even the Death Wish series ever presented, and in many ways is more similar to Mad Max in the way that the movie plays out.
Eddie Marino (Robert Forster) is a family man working for a steel factory. Unbeknownst to him many of his fellow workers belong to a vigilante group led by Nick (Fred Williamson). All of them have had experiences where they themselves were victims or had family and friends attacked. Frustrated by what they perceive as a breakdown in society and authorities that look the other way they have decided to take the law into their own hands.
Marino is unsure if this is the right way to go, preferring instead to let the justice system figure things out. This changes when his wife Vickie (Rutanya Alda) gets in a confrontation with Rico (Willie Colon), the head of a dangerous street gang. The resulting tragedy tears Marino's family apart, but he is still willing to believe in justice - until Rico gets a suspended sentence from a corrupt judge (Vincent Beck) and Marino himself ends up serving 30 days for contempt after attacking the judge.
While in prison he soon discovers that the inmates run the place, and barely survives due to the protection of an inmate named Rake (Woody Strode). While Marino is in jail, Nick and his colleagues go about cleaning up the streets and when, upon his release, he finds himself lost and alone, help him take his own revenge.
William Lustig, just like Larry Cohen (with whom he worked on the Maniac Cop movies) often benefits in his willingness to ignore doing stuff like getting film permits but still making sure he has friends where he needs them. This results in a former New York detective helping with what is largely an illegal car chase scene as well as being able to film in a real correctional facility. While some of the scenarios may seem to be more like someone's daydream of revenge, the urban environment in which the movie is filmed was all too real. Where Death Wish was a movie in which the viewer could live precariously through its protagonist, Vigilante is oppressive throughout. Your friends won't help, your neighbors won't help, and certainly the law won't help - the only person you can depend on is yourself.
What is even worse is that, as much as this philosophy is framed positively throughout the film, there is still the pervading sense that the actions of both Eddie and Nick do nothing to change the world. Eddie gets personal satisfaction, Nick feels like he has cleaned up his neighborhood, but real life experience is that someone just as bad or worse will always step up to fill the vacuum. The personal toll in discovering this is never explored, and it was largely because this was not supposed to be a standalone film - a sequel was planned from the beginning, but never filmed.
Robert Forster is largely stoic and reserved, becoming even more so as Marino goes through hell. It's a contrast from his original emotional outburst when the judge passes sentence, and the extremes he takes toward the end hint at the conversation he has with Nick early on about where the line is before you become what you are fighting against. It feels a bit emotionless at times, but I find his reactions more realistic than if he had suddenly become some quip-spouting action caricature. Fred Williamson is great as always, and makes Nick grounded and believable despite the fact that his own story arc feels more outrageous than Marino's.
A special mentions should be made of Don Blakely, who plays a gang member named Prago. Despite Rico nominally being the chief of the Headhunters, it is Prago who is responsible for the main event that sends Marino's life into a spiral, and his nihilistic view of life makes him more dangerous than Rico could ever be.
The problem I have with Vigilante, though I would still recommend it for viewing, is that the narrative loses its way toward the end. Like I have said before, Nick and his gang's ease at cleaning up their neighborhood seems more like something out of fantasy, rather than the reality of dealing out vigilante justice that is shown when they take care of a rapist early in the movie. However, the main problem is the end, and the fact that it just ends. Somehow it worked in Mad Max, where many similar events happen to the main character, and his final revenge takes up a very small part of the movie. Maybe it's because we got sequels to that movie; Vigilante would have definitely benefited from seeing Eddie and Nick's stories continue, especially in light of a real vigilante, Bernie Goetz, taking matters into his own hands on a New York subway two years later.
Like many older independent films, Vigilante is a relic of a different time and place, and not one in which many are in a hurry to revisit. It puts our current times in reflection, showing just how much better things have become, despite 24 hours of everyone in the media, regardless of political orientation, trying to inform us that it is worse than ever. It didn't come from the business end of a gun, but the world changed. The more important thing to take away from Vigilante is that it is less important to take back the streets, but to make sure that this sense of hopelessness, that pervaded the entire country at the time the movie was made, never returns.
Time: 90 minutes
Starring: Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, Rutanya Alda, Willie Colon, Don Blakely, Woody Strode
Director: William Lustig