There’s an addled contingency, seemingly ever-present in Manhattan, hell-bent on romanticizing pre-Giuliani New York, essentially saying that we were better off with unfathomable levels of rape, murder, assault, thievery, disease, and drug addiction than we are, now, with a Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurant, legions of sluggish tourists, and the biggest Sephora this side of the Alleghenies. Giuliani’s thuggish, often imbecilic tactics notwithstanding, those who had only heard of the Gomorrah-like levels of crime in NYC found assurance that they were now allowed to visit and even live in the Big Apple without running the risk of suddenly being transformed into Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey from Death Wish, one of 1974’s unexpected box office hits. Kersey became an icon, as did Bronson (in America, having already won over Asia and Europe), but Death Wish, directed by Michael Winner, was merely the most sympathetic and uncomplicated depiction of public outrage toward crime boiling over, a small, exploitative microcosm of “us vs. them” rhetoric.
William Lustig’s Vigilante, a rambunctious mess of a film, follows a similar trajectory as Winner’s Death Wish, though it offers an initially promising, if undeniably simplified dialectic on the morality of taking up its titular social outlook. Released in 1983, a year after the second of the Death Wish franchise’s five installments bowed, the film opens with an I’ve-had-it-up-to-here diatribe by vigilante leader Nick (certifiable badass Fred Williamson) to a congregation of citizens; he likens the fight for safe city streets to the Battle of Waterloo. He means what he says: A subsequent scene has Nick and his second-in-command, Burke (Richard Bright), identifying and abducting a rapist in broad daylight.
Nick and Burke, along with the rest of their gang, are depicted as reasonable men—men with wholesome families and industrial factory jobs to pay the bills. Still, their friend and co-worker, Eddie (the great Robert Forster), refuses to join up with the gang, his faith remaining with New York’s boys in blue. How might his faith be repaid, you ask? Eddie’s wife (Rutanya Alda), after stopping an assault on a gas station owner, is the victim of a violent home invasion by a gang led by Rico (well-regarded musician and political activist Willie Colón); one gang member takes particular glee in blowing her and Eddie’s son’s head off. Rubbing salt in the wound, Rico is let go in a collaborative effort between a corrupt judge and a sleazy attorney (the legend himself, Joe Spinell), leading to Eddie being sent to jail on a contempt of court charge. Needless to say, Eddie’s politics change upon his release.
Vigilante‘s politics might have been a bit easier to swallow, or dismiss as overblown fun, if the film itself weren’t so structurally a shambles. The volley between Eddie’s days in prison, which he survives Rake (Woody Strode), and Nick’s unrelenting jihad against Rico’s gang never settles into any recognizable rhythm, nor does it seem to be heading to any specific end. Even taken scene by scene, the film can only be viewed as a grab bag of elongated scenes thrown together, with key segments omitted and very little in way of pacing. These choices could even have been cast off as a choice of grindhouse auterism, but anyone familiar with Lustig’s previous feature, the horror classic Maniac, knows that he knows how to construct a genre picture efficiently, leaving little reason for Vigilante‘s general sloppiness.
Ending in an abrupt, stunningly anti-climactic act of vengeance, Vigilante does manage a handful of strong scenes (the home invasion, Eddie chasing a gang member through Queens) and, thanks mainly to cinematographer James Lemmo, features excellent location shooting in Queens and Brooklyn. But the film is nonetheless a pitiless and unexciting retread of everything that made Death Wish feel pitiless and unexciting, without the competent sense of form that Winner possessed, serving as a reminder that, despite a recent resurgence and fetishizing of the grindhouse subgenre, many of its films weren’t viewed on their own merits for good reason.
Much care and attention has been put into Vigilante's near-impeccable 1080p transfer for reasons I can't completely comprehend. The boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens are sharply rendered and detailed, with good color balance and balanced black levels. Solid texturing abounds and there's a perfect level saturation throughout. The DTS-HD MA 7.1 lossless soundtrack is just as impressive, boasting a brilliantly clear and crisp blend of dialogue, score, and background ambience. The sense of detail, especially in the beautiful New York fall with wind-blown leaves and footsteps on the sidewalk, helps create a completely immersive experience.
The Blu-ray features two commentaries and both bring out the good humor behind the making of the film. The second track, featuring William Lustig with his lead stars, is run-of-the-mill stuff (behind-the-scenes anecdotes, notes on preparation), but the first track, featuring Lustig and co-producer Andrew Garroni, is a far livelier affair, touching on the ideas behind their "guerilla"-style and influences. A theatrical trailer, stills gallery, promo reel, and TV and radio spots are also included.
A grindhouse retread of Death Wish both narratively and politically, William Lustig's Vigilante rolls out onto blu-ray with a nicer transfer than it deserves, frankly.