AKA Street Gang, Street Fighters
Starring Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, Richard Bright, Rutanya Alda, Don Blakely, Joseph Carberry, Willie Colón, Joe Spinell, Carol Lynley, Woody Strode
Directed by William Lustig
Expectations: Moderate. I was hoping that I’d enjoy this as much as Walking the Edge.
Vigilante opens with Fred Williamson walking out of complete darkness. He has a cigar in his mouth and ominous, droning electronic music builds in the background. Then he speaks…
“Hey. I don’t know about you guys, but me, I’ve had it up to here. There are some 40-odd homicides a day on our streets. There are over two million illegal guns in this city. Man, that’s enough guns to invade a whole damn country with. They shoot a cop in our city without even thinking twice about it. Ah, come on. I mean, you guys ride the subway. How much more of this grief we gonna stand for, huh? How many more locks we gotta put on our goddamn doors? Now we ain’t got the police, the prosecutors, the courts or the prisons. I mean, it’s over. The books don’t balance. We are a statistic. Now I’m telling you… when you can’t go to the corner and buy a pack of cigarettes after dark because you know the punks and the scum own the street when the sun goes down and our own government can’t protect its own people then I say this pal, you got a moral obligation. The right of self-preservation. Now you can run, you can hide, or you can start to live like human beings again. This is our Waterloo, baby! If you want your city back… you gotta take it. Dig it? Take it!”
If that doesn’t get you fired up for the film and some vigilante justice, then you are beyond help. Williamson owns this opening and it is a fantastic way to start the picture. After the opening titles, we see a woman returning to her apartment building. She gets into the elevator and a man darts in just as the door closes. He grabs her, takes her to the roof and rapes her. He runs down the stairs but an older woman spots him. She ends up describing him to Fred Williamson and his buddies, who in turn roll up on the guy in an A-Team-like van and drag him into it. He is never heard from again in the film. Whether the vigilante squad resorts to murder or not is left up to the viewer. I found this to be quite the restrained choice for a B-revenge picture. They could have easily shot him in the face or beat him to death and left him in an alley, but instead all you see is him getting thrown into the van and then they drive off. By not showing this easy opportunity for violence, it is as if the filmmakers are seeking to have violence that means something and holds emotional weight when it is shown.
Robert Forster’s character, our hero, is introduced through a short scene in the park where he picnics with his wife and young son. He’s a nice, family man who really wants the best for his family. I’d like to say that he was able to provide that for them, but as this is a revenge picture called Vigilante, I cannot. Shortly after this, Forster’s wife has a run in with a gang member. The man follows her home and breaks in, violently mutilating her and murdering the boy. This scene is especially intense and hard to watch, as it is done in a very realistic, brutal way. My assumption that they were going for emotionally impacting violence was correct, as this scene is squirm-inducing and quite powerful.
Needless to say, when Forster finds out this has happened, he flips and wants revenge. Forster is aware of Williamson’s vigilante activities, but he is reluctant to head down that path initially. He first tries the court system, but as foreshadowed in Williamson’s opening monologue, it gets him nothing but absolute frustration. Forster is more subdued and understated in this role, which serves the story and the character but makes him a bit uninteresting. His character has a great arc over the course of the film though, so ultimately it was the correct choice. Williamson is fantastic as the fed-up vigilante squad leader, who gets to showcase not only his athletic prowess but also his underrated acting chops. The acting from all is fairly good, definitely better than I expected. Salsa music legend, Willie Colon, plays the gang leader and does a great job. This was his first film role, but you’d never know it.
The film is well-shot for the most part, but there are moments of ugly framing here and there. I’m not watching this movie for the stunning cinematography though, so any minor problems I had are made up for tenfold by the kick-ass vigilante revenge contained within. One of my favorite of these moments comes when Fred Williamson chases a criminal through a building and up to a chain link fence. The criminal makes it to the other side and taunts Williamson. Fred responds with a mean ’80s jump-kick to the fence, quickly regaining his balance and making his way to the other side to continue the hunt. I won’t spoil anything, but know that the criminal got what was coming to him.
The film’s score is electronic-based and very 1980s. It was composed by Jay Chattaway, the same guy who did the score for Walking the Edge. While that score was light and rather up-beat, the Vigilante score is dark, brooding and dangerous. It perfectly captures the seedy, gritty nature of this film and is a real highlight. When Forster finally decides to seek Williamson’s help, the music during Forster’s walk over to him is reminiscent of some of the great spaghetti western scores, a proud march of honor into certain death. Great stuff.
I think I enjoyed this a hair less than Walking the Edge, but they’re really two completely different films so it is unfair of me to compare them directly. This is a satisfying ’80s revenge drama and you should totally check it out if you are a fan of such things.