Vigilante (1982) 4K Ultra HD Review: Gritty Death Wish Redux

Vigilante, a Death Wish-inspired action drama from 1982, does so many interesting and fun things that it’s a shame it doesn’t put them all together that well. It’s got urban decay, a home invasion, courtroom drama, revenge, car chases, foot chases, cars being shot up – all in an 89-minute running time. But it doesn’t quite cohere into something greater than the sum of its occasionally awesome parts.

It opens with Fred Williamson talking to a group of people, meeting apparently in secret, about how horrible the streets are, and how useless the cops are. It’s time the people did something to protect themselves. Cut to the gun range, where everyone is blasting away – practicing for what’s coming. Williamson has formed a secret vigilante group that finds the criminals the cops and courts keep turning out onto the street, and dispenses their own form of justice upon them. Their buddy Eddie (Robert Forster) first catches wind of this when a cop stops by their drinking hole and tacitly tells Williamson he knows what they’re doing, and they’d better stop. Eddie is kind of horrified. This isn’t the way the system is supposed to work.

So, of course, just at that moment his wife is brutalized and his five-year-old son shotgunned to death in a bathtub after a home invasion by an ’80s-style racially diverse movie street gang. Eddie goes to a prosecutor, goes to court, and in front of his eyes sees how the system really does work: the bad guy gets a suspended sentence, and Eddie, after protesting, gets 30 days in the clink for contempt of court.

It’s a neat set-up, throwing the movie into a different direction than I’d expected going in – Eddie, who’d never apparently broken a law in his life, in two swift moves has become a victim not only of vile criminals, but is then thrown in amongst them by an uncaring system and has to try and survive. It’s easy to see a number of interesting possibilities for any movie, especially an exploitation film like Vigilante. Eddie will get some hard lessons, have some close scrapes, then be taken under the wing of a hardened con, toughened up and prepared for getting his revenge on the gang that destroyed his family when he gets back out on the street.

That kind of happens…except for all the substance of it. While heading to his cell, Eddie makes eye contact with Rake (Woody Strode), who instantly decides to protect him from a couple of guys who like Eddie’s looks. There’s a fight scene in a shower, where Rake beats everybody up including the guard and that’s it. Eddie doesn’t train, he doesn’t get much in the way of wisdom from Rake. Woody Strode has a powerful screen presence (the man looks like he was carved from wood) but it’s not enough to more than hint at what the scenes were maybe supposed to convey.

Similarly, while Eddie is in jail, his vigilante friends go on vigilantizing, which turns out to be pretty easy. Find a thug, chase him for nearly 10 minutes of running time, beat him up and find out who his boss is. Run him down, find out who his boss is: one of the top mobsters in the city…who you just walk up to and shoot. It’s the low effort, easy vigilante lifestyle.

The scenes are fun, if implausible, but they don’t seem to occupy the same story as the one about the guy in jail who wants to get revenge. The low-level thug belongs to the same gang, but it doesn’t contribute to the story. It’s just action. Fun action, but it dilutes the power of the main story. These story threads do not tie together well. Vigilante is by no means over-complicated, but it is a little over-stuffed.

These scenes also contribute to the film’s inconsistent tone. Eddie’s story is remarkably grim. His son is dead, his wife beaten and scarred, and when he finally gets out of jail, she doesn’t want to see him anymore. These are dark, dramatic story elements, and they contrast strangely with the almost gleeful violence and action of the vigilante sequences.

Like many other films of the period, one of the most interesting things about Vigilante when watching it today is to see all the on location shooting. The film was shot in and on the streets of New York and it forms a fascinating document of the city when it was still in the throes of the violent crime boom of the ’70s and ’80s. The rundown locations add a real character to the film. It looks grimy, though it’s ironic we get to see the grime crystal clear on a restored print on the 4K UHD disc. The film’s image has a clarity that probably only existed on their first few viewings before the film prints had run through the dirty, poorly maintained projectors in the theaters that would show a low-budget exploiter like Vigilante.

Vigilante has a lot of fun elements in it, and the grit and grime and overall grim tone contribute to it. The movie doesn’t have a great structure, however. The story moves in episodes, fits and starts, and the various scenes hang together in a haphazard fashion. Which isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable – it definitely is, and the ending, which I will not spoil, was exactly the end I was hoping for, but doubted the movie would ever do. It’s far from perfect, but the ending is just one of the pleasures of Vigilante.

Vigilante has been released on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray by Blue Underground. Extras on disc include three audio commentaries: one with director Bill Lustig and producer Andrew Garroni; another with Bill Lustig again and actors Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, and Frank Pesce; and a third commentary, new for this release, by film historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson. There are a pair of new video extras: “Blue Collar Death Wish” (25 min), which contains new interviews with cast and crew, and “Urban Western” (26 min), an interview with composer Jay Chattaway. Also included are trailers and other advertising material. There’s an essay on the film in the included booklet by Michael Gingold.

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Kent Conrad

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