Martin Scorsese believes in film preservation because, as he says, even the films which aren’t considered great are still worthy as historical documents – they show us how people and places looked in the not-too-distant past, and they suggest what those people may have been thinking about. This is another reason why Martin Scorsese is brilliant.
So an early-‘80s exploitation movie like Vigilante (now available on Blu-Ray!) is I think valuable, not just for the superficial genre pleasures it [intermittently] provides, but for the moment it captures in New York – the architecture has changed dramatically, the outfits are thankfully different, the sociopolitical climate has changed, but some things have come back around again. A typically garish pimp in the movie stops to complain about how tough it is for a working man to make a buck in “this recession.”
That’s a highfalutin’ way to start a conversation about a barely-remembered midnight movie, but I’ve seen a lot of these things, so my thoughts get busy sometimes during the less original parts. Vigilante was entertaining enough, for sure, and I never once considered stopping the DVD, but like so many of these movies, there’s what you’d want it to be and what it almost achieves in several scenes, and then there’s how it actually turned out. Which is a little disappointing,
Vigilante stars the great Robert Forster (Alligator, Jackie Brown, Original Gangstas) and the great Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (Black Caesar, Inglorious Bastards, Original Gangstas). Accordingly, it’s one of those movies where the urban vigilante genre, a la Death Wish, and the blaxploitation genre, a la most of the Hammer’s filmography, meet each other like gunfighters at high midnight.
Forster plays a blue-collar guy whose co-workers, headed up by an unusually bearded Williamson, spend their off hours battering lowlife rapists and drug dealers who the police are stretched too thin to catch and the courts are too corrupt to keep. Williamson is like that intense guy at work who’s way too fixated on talking about his social agenda, and Forster pleasantly indulges him for a while. Then his wife and young son are brutally attacked by a gang headed up by the legendary salsa musician Willie Colón (who doesn’t perform in the movie but is always seen listening to good music. He’s an evil tastemaker.) Not only does the judge let Colón go free, but he actually drops Forster in jail for contempt of court.
In jail, besides being treated to partial Forster nudity, we are treated to a welcome late-career performance by Woody Strode, the old-school John Ford regular, as Rake, a tough but fair-minded lifer with a funny mustache who looks out for Forster until his release. Naturally, when Forster gets out, he looks up Williamson and they go bust some heads.
By now, you already know if you want to see this movie. You’re probably not a woman, and you may in fact be one of five people: me, Quentin, Marty, my buddy Evan, or Fred The Hammer. It’s even a small percentage of guys, admittedly, who might be eager to see such a film. To those I would say: Vigilante does satisfy on some very basic levels – it has a fun, Carpenter-esque exploitation score by Jay Chattaway, some interesting New York cinematography, and it is never not a GREAT time to be watch beloved genre actors like Robert Forster and Fred Williamson whomping away on bad guys in badly-dated gang costumes. (One guy in particular looks like comedian Zach Galafianakis). It just doesn’t aspire to much more than that.
I think a more interesting path for the story to take would have been for Forster’s character to refuse to follow Williamson down the vigilante path, and to see the two friends come into conflict at cross-purposes. If Forster’s character held on to his ethical stance and Williamson continued to push for the instinctively more satisfying release of vengeance, the movie would be much more morally sophisticated. Hell, barring that, I’d even settle for better pacing and more fights, less talk. Unfortunately, when you descend into the low-budget exploitation world, you constantly butt up against unfulfilled potential. There’s probably, unfortunately, a good reason why the classics are the classics, and it’s increasingly harder for a guy to unearth any that may have been lost to time.
Naturally, that still won’t stop me from searching. Guys like The Hammer taught me that.
*Vigilante* is available from Netflix and in better-stocked DVD outlets like J&R. Ideally, hold out for the inevitable midnight screening, whenever that may be.