William Lustig, a director of low budget exploitation films, has a small but distinguished back catalogue. His 1983 foray into the revenge sub-genre is a curious beast but certainly not without merit. Far less sensational than The Exterminator or Death Wish II, it is still a stark and grimy look at urban crime and its impact on working class neighbourhoods. It is the minimalist style of Vigilante, along with parallel storylines and complete lack of moral judgement that makes it a surprisingly better film than it first appears. Considering the violent nature of the story the film is rather restrained, yet does includes a rather unpleasant child murder. Although not graphic, it is somewhat shocking. Such material would be handled a lot differently these days.
The plot focuses upon blue collar workers Robert Forster and Fred Williamson as they struggle to earn a living and support their families. Crime in the neighbourhood is on the increase and Mr Williamson pro-actively advocates "doing something about it". His friend Robert Forster takes a contrary view. When his family falls victim to a home invasion, he puts his faith in the court system and eschews offers of personal justice. However corrupt lawyers and plea bargaining sees his family’s killers set free and our hero facing thirty days in prison for contempt of court. After a reality check from veteran con Woody Strode, Robert Forster seeks the help of his friends to even the score.
Director William Lustig varies the standard genre formula and manages to avoid some of the more obvious clichés. Despite being a tale of revenge our protagonist finds no absolution. At the end of the movie his life and marriage are in ruins. His wife leaves him unable to cope with the death of their child. The film also avoids any strong moral stance and simply shows you the events and their consequences. The strong cast of genre stalwarts give honest performances and there is little or no histrionics. Vigilante also reflects the bleak environment of New York at the time of filming. It’s harsh and unforgiving. Perhaps the weakest aspect of the film is the street gang which seems somewhat derivative of Street Thunder from Assault on Precinct 13. There is no major attempt to explain their history or excessively violent nature.
Vigilante has an intriguing narrative style, showing Fred Williamson's small scale urban justice in parallel with his work colleagues tragedy and legal battle. For the first act of the film, it’s difficult to determine who the central protagonist is. The scale of the events also lends credibility to the proceedings, showing local people taking on local pimps and dealers, rather than single-handedly shutting down international cartels. The shortcoming of a legal system that actively seeks deals and plea bargains is explored quite well. Also the police are not so much depicted as incompetent but simply overwhelmed and demoralised. When a gang member is killed by the local vigilantes, it is the police who suffer the consequences.
Vigilante is certainly worth seeing for fans of seventies and eighties revenge movies. It is very much a product of its time and may certainly not appeal to those raised on the glossy contemporary equivalents such as Law Abiding Citizen. Yet it has an honesty that you see in low budget indie picture from this time. The subject of personal justice is a perennial favourite of the film industry and has been the basis for many a good movie. Vigilante is far from a great film, with some clumsy dialogue, logical omissions and plot inconsistencies but it still manages to tackle a thorny issue in quite an effective way. Its lack of any socio-political agenda is also worth noting. Rather than lecture viewers, Vigilante simply shows things as they were at the time and lets the audience reflect upon them.