What a long and wonderfully unpredictable career William Lustig has had. Most of the players in the exploitation/grindhouse movement of the 70’s and 80’s were there to make a fast buck, not for the love of cinema. William Lustig has always stood apart as a genuine lover of film. We all know the story. Doing crew work on both legitimate features (Death Wish, Inferno) and X-rated movies, he’d direct two adult films of his own (The Violation of Claudia, 1977/Hot Honey, 1978) before using his earnings (with help from writer/star Joe Spinell and producer Andrew Garroni) to finance the controversial and highly influential Maniac (1980). He’d go on to direct a handful of features, including his collaborations with Larry Cohen on the three Maniac Cop films and his final feature, the trashy but fun direct-to-video Uncle Sam (1996), whose holographic VHS artwork always caught my eye. Then, after producing a long line of “making of” docs for Anchor Bay, he branched off with his collaborators to form the beloved Blue Underground. Think of it as Criterion for movies they’d probably never touch. He’s become something of a patron saint to cult film buffs thanks to the company’s painstaking restorations of its wildly diverse output. Like going from the mail room to the executive suite, he’s gained a level of respectability while remaining true to the movies he loves. Maniac was made on a shoestring and is a rough watch, both metaphorically and literally, since it lacks a certain polish. That lack of polish only enhances its power, but for his follow-up, 1983’s Vigilante, Lustig would step up his game by making a faster, more ambitious indictment of New York’s violent criminal underbelly in the late 70’s and 80’s.
Jay Chattaway’s score, a fantastic mix of dread and heroic themes, plays as the title rushes at us. Out of the darkness emerges Nick (ultimate badass Fred Williamson), delivering the first of many monologues. As the mouthpiece for writer Richard Vetere’s angry prose railing against the decay of his city, he’s practically a preacher. In a shadowy shooting range, he urges his fellow New Yorkers to rise up and take back their city by any means necessary. The police, the courts? They won’t and can’t help. The scum is back on the street before the end of the day. “You want your city back? You gotta take it. Dig it? Take it!” And we’re off and running.
My father spent a lot of time in New York growing up and often says he misses the sleaze merchants and drug peddlers. He admits that it was a very dangerous place to live in, but there was an excitement in the air. Anything could happen. Several filmmakers, including Abel Ferrara and Martin Scorsese, have depicted in films like Ms. 45 (1981) and Taxi Driver (1976), the inherent rot of society and the rampant crime that had overtaken the city. Lustig would explore a more horror-based response to crime with Maniac Cop (1988) but in Vigilante, he’s no less committed to presenting danger around every corner.
Lustig takes his time in the best sense as a woman returning home goes through the motions of picking up her mail and getting in the elevator. A creepy guy gets on right before the door closes, having spotted her when she entered the building. There’s a silence as he stands next to her in the cramped elevator that’s palpable. She makes for the door and that’s when he pounces. He rapes, then kills her on the roof. An elderly woman taking out the trash sees the rapist huffing and puffing down the stairs. Since the police are unlikely to catch the culprit, she accompanies Nick and his crew, made up of Burke (Richard Bright - Al Neri in all three Godfathers as well as Once Upon a Time in America and Red Heat) and Ramon (Joseph Carberry, your regular NY actor from films like Last Exit to Brooklyn and Men of Respect) on a little errand. We never see the assembled group from the opening scene again and the poster art is also a bit misleading. If you glance at the artwork, you assume that these are the vigilantes, but with a second look, they’re definitely the bad guys, who only bear a passing resemblance to the baddies in the film.
The woman points out the rapist and Nick, Burke, and Ramon nab him and beat the crap out of his buddies. Nick kicks one of them in the balls. We don’t see what happens, but I doubt this rapist was shown any mercy. Nick’s fellow co-worker at a steel factory is Eddie Marino (Robert Forster, still years away from his career resurgence), who is shown lounging with his wife Vickie (Rutanya Alda, whose jaw-dropping credits include The Deer Hunter, Scarecrow, Christmas Evil, The Stuff, and Mommie Dearest), and son Scott (Dante Joseph). It’s a sweet scene, so we know it’s going to go downhill very soon. The movie marches to the beat of its own drum but the influence of Death Wish (1974) can’t be ignored. Its sequel had been released only a year prior and it’s sadly ironic that very little had changed in the near ten-year gap between those two films. Tony Musante was originally cast to play Marino and, although I’m a fan thanks to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and his later work on Oz, I find Robert Forster to be an immensely appealing actor. Even when he’s convincingly angry, as in here or in The Descendents (2011), there’s a kindness and decency in his face.
While he works at the factory, Vickie, who is a brave and forthright woman, takes it upon herself to teach some young punks a lesson. When Rico (musician Willie Colon), the leader of a street gang, is reprimanded for skipping out on paying for gas, “fill it fast, pendejo,” he sprays the attendant with the pump until Vickie steps in and slaps him. It’s always difficult to know how one would react in a situation like this. Would you just stand by and watch, comfortable in the knowledge that it’s none of your business? Or would you rush in to help, knowing you could incur the wrath of the attackers? It didn't work out so well for Monica Bellucci in Irreversible (2002). Rico’s reaction to Vickie is interesting in that it isn’t a simple retaliation for a mere slight. He clearly sees this woman as no real threat so he simply pushes her away and she retaliates with the slap. It’s a frustrating moment because you know she just signed her own death warrant but you also cheer her on for being so strong-willed.
Later, at home, she sees the gang’s car waiting out front. She calls the police and the cop on the other end is a real dick. Almost immediately, they break in. It’s an intense home invasion that’s much stronger and less disgustingly gratuitous than Michael Winner’s depiction in the second Death Wish. The gang’s second-in-command Prago (Don Blakely, the incendiary The Spook Who Sat by the Door) searches for Scott upstairs. The boy hides inside a tub with the shower curtain drawn. A malevolent smile forms on Prago’s face and, using the shotgun from Maniac, graphically blows the child away in a bloody mess only shown through a window exploding in blood-covered shards raining down on Vickie. She refused to be a victim and fought off her captors, who were toying with her anyway, and she’d been rushing through a massive row of laundry lines screaming for help before getting slashed and stabbed by Rico.
The film ups the ante by allowing we, as the audience, to know before Eddie that his wife and son are dead. He’s driving home and sees cars and lights on his street. He doesn’t think too much of it until he gets closer and experiences the ultimate nightmare. They’re at his house. He rushes in and a detective from earlier (Randy Jurgensen, a former NYPD detective often employed as a technical adviser) gets right to the point. “See the D.A.”
In an interview with Mad Monster Party, Lustig described Vigilante as an “urban retaliation” film. He also approached the film as a spaghetti western. There are opposing posses and a reluctant hero who ultimately has to take up arms against the villains. Vickie, though badly hurt, survives, which surprised me. I love the New York that’s shown here. Even the hospital looks scuzzy. This may be due to the fact that it was indeed an abandoned hospital that had to be set decorated with outside equipment.
Eddie meets with the Assistant D.A., Mary Fletcher (Carol Lynley - The Poseidon Adventure, Bunny Lake is Missing, The Night Stalker), who is determined to prosecute Rico to the full extent of the law. It turns out he has 22 arrests but no convictions, which seems odd until we meet the judge later. There’s a great deal of information being put out there regarding the difficulties in convicting petty thugs. It’s all the more frustrating that although the proceedings go along at a more rapid pace than one would expect, the hard truths of the justice system feel unfortunately timeless. Meeting Eddie at a pier, Nick does some more preaching. There’s a lot of anger in this movie but Fred Williamson is so cool that it comes off as just that, cool. Eddie speaks of a system of laws that they, as a society, must obey, which Nick scoffs at. Eddie suspects what Nick and his friends have been up to. So has a cop friend, patrol officer Gibbons (Steve James of the American Ninja series and Brother from Another Planet). Eddie questions where it would all lead if he and everyone else took the law into their own hands and started to eliminate people for minor infractions, even just rudeness? He describes killing “assholes all over the street.” To his credit, Nick doesn’t have an answer and says nothing.
The star of Maniac strides into the courthouse like a pimp. I get giddy when I see Joe Spinell in anything. At the time, he was suffering from substance abuse problems, so he was very problematic on the set. You wouldn’t know it here. I was assuming he’d have a cool part, maybe as a prosecutor, but nope! Holy shit, Joe is dirty. Prago gives him some cash in the bathroom, which Spinell finds a little light. After a bit of dastardly back and forth, “that spick friend of yours will be raw meat in jail,” he gets another roll of money. He’s an expert at plea bargains for scumbags like Rico.
As Fletcher calls him, the “irresponsible asshole” Judge Sinclair (Vincent Beck) calls the court to order. This was Beck’s final role, and how appropriate that he’d go out playing another asshole since his very first screen appearance was as the evil Voldar in the holiday “classic” Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). The mechanics of how Rico, looking very clean and non-threatening in a suit, gets off are fascinating. It still feels a bit ridiculous but since the judge is likely corrupt and a “defendant’s judge” as Paul Newman put it in The Verdict (1982), Rico gets a two-year suspended sentence. Forster has a marvelous freak-out and really goes for it here, attacking Rico first and then Judge Sinclair. It’s very raw and is a reminder of why Forster became a movie star in the first place. He’s held in contempt and I found the sight of him actually going into prison refreshing. It makes sense that an outburst like that would result in him serving time, albeit temporarily. What happens is slightly different than Joe Pesci’s experience in My Cousin Vinny (1992).
He arrives in prison, looks over, and BOOM! Woody Strode, still looking handsome and still fantastic as always. He’s the wise, tough old lifer who decides to watch out for Eddie. He finds it strange that Eddie is “pretty hostile for a white ass.” A corrupt guard allows two prisoners, one of whom was the leader of a chapter of the Hell’s Angels, to “have a party” in the shower. The big one tells Eddie to get “on your knees.” Strode comes in out of nowhere and beats the fuck out of them. He even sucker punches the guard for good measure. It’s a short appearance, but he makes an impact. I do wish Eddie had said ‘thank you’ to him before being released.
While Eddie stews in jail, Nick is getting the trash off the streets. The movie can’t seem to decide who the lead of the movie is, which isn’t a huge deal since it’s so much fun, but it does feel like Nick’s plot is just a series of satisfying beat-downs. Blueboy (Frank Pesce, Lustig regular and the cigarette truck guy in Beverly Hills Cop) is a dope dealer. He picked the wrong street corner because Nick spots him and starts to follow. Fred Williamson TOWERS over Pesce. There’s a huge chase scene and Pesce slows Nick down by literally grabbing a guy in a wheelchair and knocking him down. It’s shocking and admittedly kind of funny. Nick helps the guy up and then jumps the fence, landing in a Kung Fu pose that’s a bit much. They end up at the top of a structure, separated by a fence. Blueboy calls Nick “a big fuckin’ dummy.” I’m surprised he didn’t say something racist. Maybe he’s an inclusive drug dealer? He seems to get away but Burke is waiting with a bat to beat the hell out of him. They threaten to throw him out a window until he gives up his supplier. A pimp named Horace. It would be cool if it was A Pimp Named Slickback, but never mind.
Horace (Bo Rucker, who I like to think is playing the same pimp from Superman), drives a straight-up pimp mobile with leopard interior. One of his ho’s complains that the potential customers are “all fags,” but that doesn’t stop Horace from smacking a bitch up. He drives off, with Nick and the gang right behind him in the van.
One of the most fun aspects of Vigilante is the flipping of the standard stalking conventions. Usually, it’s the bad guys who are following the good guys. This time, Nick, Burke, and Ramon are the ones being creepy, tailing Horace’s Cadillac until they ram him, causing it to flip over in a well-choreographed crash. They beat him until he gives up the real supplier since they don’t think he’s smart enough to handle it himself. Horace gets in an amusing crack, “Yo mama ain’t smart enough to deal by herself.” He says a “Mr. T” is the boss, so, of course we’re all thinking this is going to be an A-Team origin story. It turns out to be some supposedly upstanding citizen named Thomas Stokes (Peter Savage, a close friend of Lustig’s uncle, Jake LaMotta, as well as the co-author of Raging Bull) who the guys saw professing his innocence on TV earlier. Nick tracks him down and blows the driver away first with an impressive shotgun blast to the gut. Stokes is shocked and shouts, “Don’t you know who I am?” Nick: “Yeah. I know who you are.” Boom! Down goes Stokes.
There’s a cool guitar riff as Eddie leaves prison and then the movie lets loose with an awesomely badass theme. Forster approaches Williamson, ruining several games of handball. He doesn’t have time to worry about their stupid cardio. In a scene reminiscent of the minimal dialogue during William Devane’s recruiting of Tommy Lee Jones in Rolling Thunder (1977), all Eddie says is: “I want him.”
Accompanied by some very stereotypical Latino music, Rico is about to get it on with a comely lass. Ramon bangs on the door and Rico’s pissed somebody interrupted his boner. “Gonna light you up!” he yells. They burst in and Eddie first wounds Rico, who pleads for his life. “You killed my son,” Eddie says. Rico says Prago was the one who shot Scott, but Eddie doesn’t care and shoots him anyway. There’s a well-observed moment when Nick looks at Eddie and seems to regret bringing him this far. Now there’s no turning back. Rico’s girlfriend bursts out and wounds one of them, but Nick gets her with a gut shot and she flies back like in Django Unchained (2012). Her velocity was not planned, apparently, but it’s a helluva shot and Lustig said the actress took it like a champ.
Gibbons thinks he knows who killed Rico but Detective Russo tells him to keep a lid on it. He doesn’t want the media to “make heroes out of these guys” as vigilantes. One of Rico’s crew saw who shot him, but then we’re treated to an odd scene where Gibbons and his partner Ptl. Shore (Frank Gio, who would play Arty Clay in Ferrara’s masterful King of New York) get ambushed by Rico’s gang, now Prago’s gang, I suppose. It’s entertaining and there’s a ton of bullets which destroy the squad car, but it does seem a bit random.
Eddie comes to see his wife and at first, I thought the doctor saying. “she doesn’t want to see you” was some kind of code for, “she’s dead.” Instead, we’re treated to a clunky but plausible scene where a highly distraught and devastated Vickie rejects Eddie and feels nothing for anyone and everything. She just wants to leave the city. The only real problem here is that the film doesn’t have the time or the inclination to explore this new development in their relationship. The acting, particularly from Rutanya Alda, is very raw and emotional. It’s believable that she would feel this way after the death of her son and her own trauma. It’s just unfortunate that more couldn’t be made of this since the movie needs to move into the final fight with the gang. I can’t fault Richard Vetere for the effort, it’s just not the movie for this kind of scene.
Whether or not the film is intentionally going for a randomness or they couldn’t afford to do a big battle, Eddie sees Prago on the street. Again, I’m very appreciative that the movie is going places I didn’t expect. I suppose I’m just programmed to assume the whole crew is going to fight. Prago takes a solid minute to recognize Eddie, then makes a run for it. He tries to drive his own car away, but he’s sandwiched in. He ends up stealing the car of the guy in front of him, then Eddie takes Prago’s car. It’s all a bit much, but the chase is spectacular. Well-shot and a lot of things going smashy-smashy. They end up out of the cars and at the top of a tower. Very dramatic. Prago goads Eddie to fight him and Eddie complies. He grabs Prago and throws him over the rail, which is a nice stunt but the audio for Prago’s “Yaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!!” fall is a little unconvincing. There’s a nice splattered-head wound, compliments of Mr. Lustig himself thanks to some fake blood and cream cheese. Eddie found time to become an explosives expert as well because he rigs Sinclair’s car and the judge is toast. He drives off in the van. Credits. Whoa! THAT’S the end?! Like, it just went completely berserk for the finale. It’s awesome.
The story feels patchy at times and characters come and go with little regard for continuity. The detective and the cops are particularly useless, having very little bearing on the plot whatsoever. That doesn’t detract from the enormous fun to be had from this tough little feature. It’s slicker filmmaking and the use of crane shots lends a sense of professionalism that many detractors felt Maniac lacked. Lustig takes such joy in the chaos the vigilantes inflict on the guilty parties that you can’t help but be energized by the experience. This was a wish-fulfillment call-to-arms for a radical and violent change that felt necessary at the time. The film’s afterlife was marred by bad luck as Vestron Video went bankrupt and the film was not distributed legally. There was also an issue overseas where the value of the dollar went down, so what Lustig’s team was supposed to be paid ended up a third less due to deflation. Lustig spent years in court trying to get his movie back. Luckily, thanks to Blue Underground, the whole world can see his work and we can sit back and enjoy watching some young punks get taken down.