Review by Dave Kaye
**** Out of 5
Tagline- You’re Not Safe Anymore
Release Date- September 16th, 1983
Running Time- 89-Minutes
Screenplay- Richard Vetere
Director- William Lustig
Starring- Robert Forster, Rutanya Alda, Willie Colon, Woody Strode, Joe Spinell and Fred Williamson as Nick
After his stunning and highly controversial debut film Maniac, William Lustig returned with Vigilante released in 1983 and like Maniac, Vigilante is an exploitation flick at a time when the tide had mostly turned on these movies. Like his debut, Vigilante isn’t a perfect movie; it’s a little rough around the edges in some spots, but from that comes a raw and gritty feel much like Craven’s Last House on the Left and Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The fact that those films weren’t perfectly made adds something to them and had they been more polished they wouldn’t have come out nearly as well. In my opinion William Lustig is a highly underrated filmmaker and granted he may not be on the same level as someone like John Carpenter, Lustig, however in his own right is an excellent filmmaker and while I have enjoyed many of his films none were able to match the brilliance of his first two, which as I stated had this raw gritty edge to them.
Most people cite Vigilante as a knockoff of Death Wish and I’m quite sure William Lustig drew some inspiration from Death Wish, but with that said Vigilante also has a style all of its own. Let’s get one thing straight; Death Wish is the holy grail of the vigilante movie. Since its release in 1974 almost every vigilante movie since has been inspired by it even if the film is based on a comic or novel before Death Wish came out. To this day Death Wish in my opinion remains the best vigilante movie ever made and I don’t see anything topping it, but Lustig’s Vigilante in many areas can hold its own against Death Wish.
Factory worker Eddie Marino (Forster) has his life turned upside down by the brutal attack on his wife Vickie (Alda) that leaves his child killed in the process (more on that later), but when a corrupt judge (Beck) sets the leader of the gang free and then holds Eddie in contempt of court, Eddie breaks down and seeks vengeance on the ruthless gang of thugs that murdered his young son.
The marketing for the movie and even the poster art does sort of hint at an all-out action movie and while Vigilante does feature a lot of graphic violence the movie is much more driven by the characters and the moral dilemma of vigilance justice and writer, Richard Vetere does a good job at creating some interesting characters as well as creating a good moral dilemma on when vigilante justice goes too far and are the people doing this any better than the criminals? I’d say the answer is yes, since if the law doesn’t do anything about it somebody has to, but it does raise a good question on when things would go from doing the right thing to killing someone over a silly dispute. The characters may not be the best developed with the exception of Eddie, but all the characters however do add to the movie. Vetere writes a smart screenplay that sure obviously inspired by Death Wish, but it also has a lot more going for it than being a take on the classic Bronson movie.
Director William Lustig delivers a fun and exciting movie that also works on the dramatic level as well; while Vigilante isn’t a horror movie it does feature some highly suspenseful scenes such as the attack on Vickie, which has an eerie and unsettling feeling that is more on tune with a horror flick. New York in the 1970s and 1980s is quite different than today. Any big city will be plagued by crime, but NYC back in the 70s and 80s could be a very dangerous place that was very sleazy and Lustig manages to capture that feeling to perfection with both Maniac and Vigilante and I’d go as far to say Lustig captures that seedy feel NY once had better than most filmmakers and I’m sure being a New Yorker also helped that. While NY might be a big city with a lot of people, Lustig makes you feel the isolation of an ugly place and no matter where you are you aren’t safe and Lustig again really captures the ugliness of a big city ridden with crime. I’d go as far to say the only filmmaker to capture that era of NY better was Martin Scorsese.
While the pacing is very solid there are however a few scenes that tend to drag. When Eddie goes to prison its meant to show how screwed up the justice system is, which makes his decision to seek revenge make much more sense however I don’t think the scenes with Eddie in prison were needed as the point is already made clear and while it’s only a couple of scenes with Eddie in prison as during this time focus is put on the other characters this would really be my only real flaw with the movie.
William Lustig really delivers a very entertaining movie that works on both an action level, dramatic and deeper level. So many people get the wrong idea on exploitation flicks. Since the release of the Tarantino/Rodriguez movie Grindhouse everyone seems to think these films are only so good they’re bad and the real shame is people are missing out on some really great and deep movies and while Vigilante may not be the deepest and most powerful exploitation film to ever come around it does however deliver some good social commentary on vigilante justice and when it goes too far and this to me is prime example of exploitation flicks as movies like Last House on the Left and even Cannibal Holocaust work on a much deeper level than just the graphic violence and if anything I’d go as far to say movies like that are a far better example of exploitation filmmaking than movies like Pieces or Burial Ground. As I stated before Vigilante isn’t a non-stop action movie so those who are only used to a certain type of exploitation movie might be a little letdown, but when there is violence its quite graphic and brutal and fits the ugly tone set by Lustig from the very beginning of the movie,
Part of what also makes Vigilante so powerful is it features a young child brutally gunned down with a shotgun and while the death is off camera, we do however see the death from the outside yard, the shot is fired we see blood and the window being shattered this in part makes the scene so much more powerful since in general, filmmakers tend to shy away from killing children in movies and for the most part we know no harm will come to kids, but when it does happen like in Vigilante all bets are off and now you know anything is possible and nothing is off limits.
The fact a young child is brutally gun down with a shotgun blast is very unsettling and while again we don’t actually see the child get shot this scene really makes the movie all the more powerful and has really stuck with me years later and like I said by killing a young child we now know really anything can happen and Lustig keeps you guessing just how far the film will go. As popular as Maniac and Vigilante are it seems most people know William Lustig more from the Maniac Cop trilogy and while these are enjoyable films in my opinion they come nowhere near the level of Maniac and Vigilante and these two movies alone make William Lustig one of my favorite filmmakers. William Lustig has now gone onto be the CEO and founder of Blue-Underground and it’s great that Lustig is keeping the memory of cult cinema alive and this guy really deserves a lot more respect than he gets.
The performances in Vigilante are also very strong with Robert Forster putting in an excellent performance and since this movie has become a semi-regular for Lustig appearing in such movies as Maniac Cop III and Uncle Sam. Obviously people will compare Forster with Charles Bronson and Bronson is one of my favorite actors and one of the ultimate tough guys of film and as great as he was in Death Wish, Forster is much stronger in Vigilante. Again I love Bronson and he’s one of my all-time favorite actors, but he didn’t really have a lot of depth and really didn’t seem to show any emotion despite the horrible tragedies that happened to him whereas Forster shows more emotion and you can feel his pain, but he doesn’t overdo it. Cult actor Fred Williamson is excellent as Nick one of the vigilante’s trying to clean up the streets his own way and Joe Spinell the Maniac himself also appears in a brief role as a corrupt attorney.
Some people have complained over some of the loose ends the movie has and while I do understand complaints I feel as if everything was wrapped up. There does seem to be maybe a little unresolved issue between Eddie and his wife Vickie, but also its made clear as well and I suppose not much more was really needed, but I did feel there was a little more potential for that story and people complain about the ending and yeah it does sort of just end, but it’s pretty explosive (pun intended). Overall Vigilante is an excellent movie from a type of film no longer around; if you like gritty and rough exploitation flicks, Vigilante should be to your liking as Lustig delivers an excellent movie that raises some great social comments on society and as I stated it works as both an action movie, drama and a powerful piece of moral dilemma.
As I write this review and the more I think about the film it just might be better than Death Wish as a whole. Death Wish might be more pleasing, but Vigilante is raw and gritty and Lustig captures an ugliness NYC had at the time the film was made.