Videodrome :: Vigilante (1982)
  • Post category:Music
  • Post comments:0 Comments
  • Post author:
  • Post published:13/04/2022
  • Post last modified:13/04/2022

(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)

When Vigilante premiered at Cannes in 1982, the film was quickly written off as a Death Wish ripoff. The timing of its release didn’t help such comparisons. Death Wish II (1982), the second installment in the popular action franchise starring Charles Bronson, had opened months earlier, increasing critics and audiences awareness of the obvious parallels. Vigilante and Death Wish are both crime dramas with graphic action sequences, following a similar narrative blueprint: an NYC man takes justice into his own hands when he tracks down the gang members that attacked and killed his family.

In many ways, Vigilante is the scrappy kid brother of Death Wish. But its approach is leaner and meaner, rough around the edges and unvarnished; echoing the same barefaced sentiments as Death Wish, but with a sneer instead of a smirk: “Violence is the answer,” “If you want something done right, you got to do it yourself,” “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” There’s a primal and animalistic undercurrent to Vigilante, grittier and sleazier then the Death Wish franchise or any of its “revengeplotation” contemporaries. The visual aesthetic and thematic philosophy is exploitative and nihilistic; ice in its veins and hate in its heart.

The hard-boiled moral code of Vigilante presents itself right away, when a factory worker named Nick (played by Fred Williamson) steps out from the shadows, a cigar between his lips, and looks directly into the camera: “Hey, I don’t know about you guys, but me…I’ve had it up to here. There are some forty-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. 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 are we gonna stand for? How many more locks do 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…and when the government can’t protect its own people I say this, pal – you got a moral obligation, the right of self-perseveration. You can run, you can hide, or you can start to live like human beings again. This is our waterloo, baby! You want your city back? You gotta take it! Dig it? Take it!”

The film follows Eddie Marino (played by Robert Forster), an NYC factory worker with a wife and eight-year-old son. When Marino isn’t flying model-planes with his son or having picnics with his wife – the consummate family man – he’s working hard at the factory with his buddies, including Nick. These are blue-collared guys, gold in their hearts and oil on their coveralls, clocking in and out of a hard day’s work so they can go drink luke-warm bottles of Miller Lite at The Velvet Cup, a local dive. While at the bar, an NYPD officer approaches Nick, warning him about his little “goon squad.” Marino takes note of the interaction and is informed later that Nick leads a small vigilante group of middle-class guys who feel betrayed by the justice system and are fed up with the rampant crime in their neighborhoods. “It’s just people trying to help each other,” one of them innocently tells Marino, as if they help out at a soup kitchen instead of breaking bones and smashing heads. But Marino’s not interested in participating in all the lawlessness. There’s a system in place for such things – let the cops and courts handle it, right?

But after Marino’s son is killed and his wife is savagely assaulted by “The Headhunters” – a street gang led by Frederico “Rico” Melendez (played by NYC trombonist and salsa musician, Willie Colón) – Marino begins to see the rips in the thread of justice. He partners with Assistant District Attorney Mary Fletcher (Carol Lynley), seeking a lengthy jail sentence for Melendez, who has already been arrested twenty-two times: “Of the half a million felonies in this city, only four thousand of the defendants have actually been tried, convicted, and sent to prison,” Fletcher informs Marino. “Eighty-five percent of all serious crime gets disposed of through misdemeanors, dismissed from court, or not even prosecuted because witnesses are afraid to testify. A mugger is usually back out on the street before the victim gets out of the hospital.”

It’s clear that the game is rigged; the odds are against the victims, and even before Melendez shows up in court, his right-hand man Prago (played by Don Blakely) has already bribed the judge and paid off Melendez’s attorney, Eisenburg (played by Joe Spinell, who previously worked with Lustig on Maniac (1980) and quietly boasts one of the most impressive filmographies of the seventies/eighties: The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Rocky (1976), Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980), Night Shift (1982), etc.). Melendez gets off with two years, the sentence to be suspended. Marino is shocked by the deft ruling and rightfully throws a tantrum in court. He’s charged with contempt, sentenced to thirty days in jail. When Marino gets out, he goes directly to his cigar-chomping buddy, Nick: he’s ready to join Nick’s ragtag group of vigilantes and get revenge on The Headhunters.

Lustig’s NYC is a bleak industrial wasteland, covered in graffiti and ruled by gangs, criminals, rapists, and pimps. It’s an outlaw land; an urban sprawl that blurs the line between corruption and justice, cop and criminal. Vigilante takes place on the ground-floor of construction sites and shadowy docks, far removed from the penthouse suites and brownstones of Manhattan. Whatever opulence may be occurring in the high-rises belongs to a different world, but one that is equally (if not more so) corrupt. While we follow Marino and Nick around the thug-infested street corners of the boroughs, we’re shown high-ranking members of NYC’s mayors office on TV, who we later find out are funneling drugs from their stately corner office down to the grimy streets of the city. There are no good guys in Vigilante, just varying degrees of bad guys.

Richard Vetere’s screenplay does its best to provide enough motivation to justify our protagonists’ increasingly brutal actions against their foes, but the ethical conundrums it raises further complicates the messaging of the film, which champions homespun violence over all other forms of judicatory processes. When Marino asks Nick what separates their vicious actions from the same kind of cruelty exacted by the criminals they’re fighting against, Nick responds, “That’s something you got to figure out all for yourself.”

Of course, Vigilante isn’t the kind of movie that sets out to preach a weighty message. It’s not aspiring to be a heady meditation on ethics and mortality. It knows what is it: an ultra-violent, low-budget B-movie, drawing influences from 1970s Italian horror and crime films (to such a degree that certain sequences could fall in and out of Umberto Lenzi films). Vigilante was William Lustig’s follow-up to his psychological-slasher, Maniac (1980), and the remnants of the director’s previous foray into horror are scattered throughout, adding tonal flourishes that are
oddly placed, yet signature to Vigilantes pulpy singularity. James Lemmo’s effacing cinematography (displaying early-eighties NYC in all its sordidness) and Jay Chattaway’s score (which sounds like a retro, first-person shooter video game and a spaghetti-western from hell being dropped into a midnight-movie blender) heightens Vigilante’s grind-house schlock from style to substance.

Vigilante doesn’t have time for hefty subtextual themes of corruption or ruminating on the decay of the judicial system. It’s too busy kicking ass and giving the bad guys their just desserts, served straight up with extra blood. This preoccupation with the machoism of urban-guerrilla retribution leads to a few plot holes, underdeveloped characters, and an abrupt ending. But it also fosters ninety minutes of synth-drenched action sequences, high-octane car chases, and Fred Williamson being a bonafide badass from beginning to end credits, and that’s all we really need for Vigilante to function. | e hehr

Dig this flavor of culture coverage? If so, support us through Patreon. Help us continue to produce mixtapes, podcasts, radio shows, a/v joints, interviews, features, and much more. 

Leave a Reply