This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Liam’s turn to do the damage. Here are Elbee‘s thoughts on Vigilante.
If there’s any hole in my cinematic knowledge, it would have to be exploitation pictures. This isn’t an admission so much as it is an attempt for you readers to understand me and the kind of films I love and appreciate….wait a minute, wow. I already sound like a snob here. What I mean is, I don’t typically watch these films because I’m busy trying to catch up on decades of cinematic history that the average film scholar wants me to see. And while I don’t generally have a problem with exploitation films, they don’t exactly speak to me in the same ways they do some of my peers. So when Liam gave us his list of favorites from Ex-Fest, honestly I didn’t really expect to enjoy this experience. But hey, that’s what REKT is, right? Pushing yourself by trying new things?
The film I chose is Vigilante, released in 1983 from director William Lustig, whose name you may recognize from the 1980 slasher Maniac and later the Maniac Cop series that stretched into the ‘90s (since I’ve just established that these types of films aren’t my forte, please understand I had to look this information up for you. I care about you. Be here for my journey.). It stars Robert Forster and Fred Williamson, and a number of other highly identifiable names and faces like Carol Lynley, Joe Spinell, and Woody Strode. Admittedly, it’s a pretty amazing cast list. Of course I loved Lynley in Bunny Lake Is Missing, everybody thinks Spinell is cool, and Strode? The man is a certifiable badass with a long career. Williamson’s dogged reputation precedes him, and well, I concede I might take too many opportunities to express my, uh, appreciation for Mr. Forster (Fact: when Liam dropped this list, Adrianna tagged me and said “Robert Forster alert!”), so I can’t deny the idea of this film intrigued me. I pressed on…and pressed PLAY.
Right away this film hits you with style. Scenes of ordinary folk practicing at an indoor gun range are cut between Williamson’s character leading a neighborhood meeting encouraging them to fight against the “scum on the street.” Of course, I’m already on their side, but Williamson’s performance here got me hype. “This is our Waterloo,” he proclaims. “If you want your city back, take it!” I don’t quite know what kind of scum you’re talking about yet, Fred, but… Hell yes, I’m here. Let’s go.
Oh hey, Movie, you’re gonna now immediately go right in to showing me the kind of scum Fred is talking about? Cool, thank you. This is New York City in the early ‘80s. Everything is dirty and grimy and poorly lit, including the criminals. We’re introduced to the scummy street gang in a few horrible ways: a woman is dragged from an elevator and raped on a rooftop, a man is doused with gasoline straight from the pump, and a small child is gruesomely blown to bits with a shotgun blast. The gang is stereotypically multicultural — which I only mention because it’s fitting for a film from this time period — and menacing; they all have tough exteriors and seemingly no remorse for the bad things they do.
Okay, but let’s get to Forster. Witnessing the assault on the man at the service station, his wife (Rutayna Alda, from The Deer Hunter and Mommie Dearest) stands up to the scum leader and slaps him in the face. Later, she’s followed home by the gang and tries to call her husband, but he’s unavailable during his lunch hour, and by god, you can’t text anyone in 1983. But she’s suspicious and afraid of what may happen with their car outside, and rightfully so because those scummy bastards soon enter the family’s home, and we are subjected to a lengthy display of thrashing and trashing of household items and furniture (gratuitous television smashing included). Not only that, but the invasion is made worse when Alda is chased out into the back garden where she is stabbed multiple times, and before rendered unconscious on the ground, she bears witness to the aforementioned small child (her son!) being gruesomely blown to bits with a shotgun blast as he’s hiding in the second story bathroom (seriously, chunks of this child blow out the window. Thanks, Movie.).
This is a pretty standard Punisher-type setup for our hero Forster, which furthers itself when the criminals hire a sleazy attorney (Spinell) to pay off a sleazy judge who suspends sentencing for the scum on trial to the frustration of both Forster and his representative, the District Attorney (Lynley). Forster then explodes in court, attempting to attack the judge, and is arrested for contempt and assault. He spends some time in the slammer where we see that the system is even more corrupt when other prisoners pay off one of the guards to let them beat up Forster in the prison shower.
Hold up a sec. Forgive me for being gratuitous, but this movie features Robert Forster showering, and Lustig does me the favor of not cutting away. I mean, the scene is no Medium Cool, but it’s…enough. Also, this is the scene in which uber-man Woody Strode strides in and gives everyone what-for, which I am undoubtedly all-for.
Anywho. Forster is released when time is served, and the rest of the film is he and Williamson fighting against those street scum and picking them off one by one in various violent ways. I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I thought I would, and I think it’s because there’s a little bit of a philosophy behind its dealings with vigilantism; one of Forster’s work buddies justifies taking the law into his own hands by citing the old phrase “God helps people who help themselves,” which puts into question what exactly it means to be a hero. They all know the “system” is a bit shaky (read: corrupt), and Williamson drives this point by saying “System, my ass! Who are they protecting? The scum on the street, or us?!” Forster is torn, though, and asks “What happens if you do something to me I don’t like? Or I don’t like the way some guy’s got his hair parted? Pretty soon you got assholes all over the street looking to blow each other’s brains out. And if I do that, what makes me different than the scum?” Williamson considers the question for a moment before replying, “That’s something you gotta figure out all by yourself, man.” Not only are these moral questions there, but this film skirts around complex ideas and emotions like taking blame for the uncontrollable events in our lives, and what victimization does to one’s spirit. Does being a victim mean giving up, or does it mean standing up? These are all important ideals to consider, and I’m very glad to have seen them posed in this movie.
So, Vigilante is cool. A gritty NYC exploitation picture that I liked! It’s novel, I know. Thanks to Liam for recommending it, and thanks to Adrianna for Forster-flagging it for me. I’m open to more, you guys. Really.