Sure, at its heart Vigilante is Death Wish, but both of those movies are really just westerns updated to fit the decade that they were created for. Plus, where Bronson’s film at least seems to end with some hope, this movie is a nihilistic, cynical and pessimistic journey into hell, which is really the only three ways to properly describe just such a trip.
Eddie Marino is played by Robert Forster in a rare lead role. You know how I always say that every movie should have William Smith in it? Well, let’s amend that by saying that if William Smith doesn’t want to do it, call Robert Forester. Despite living in the end of the world NYC of 1982, he has a good wife (Rutanya Alda, who between Mommie Dearest, The Stuff, Amityville II: The Possession and Girls Nite Out ends up being in so many of my favorite movies) and a cute little kid.
Sadly, he’s not in some coming of age tale or family drama. No, Eddie Marino has the bad fortune to be the hero of a William Lustig movie. And between scalp-lopping serial killers and zombified cops, every Lustig movie I’ve seen is full of tragedy, despair and a casual disregard for morality and the suffering of its characters.
Eddie’s co-workers, Nick (Fred Williamson, always a more than welcome sight), Burke (Richard Bright, Cut and Run) and Ramon (Joseph Carberry, Short Eyes) are fed up with crime, the cops and the system that keeps criminals out of jail. Now, the neighborhood tells them, instead of the police, who is behind the crimes that happen every day.
Eddie refuses to be a part of this, even when he comes home to find his wife stabbed and his son shot and killed. His wife had helped a gas station attendant who was being abused and that’s all it took for Frederico “Rico” Melendez (Willie Colón, a salsa king when not acting) and his gang to snap.
Assistant District Attorney Mary Fletcher (Carol Lynley*, The Night Stalker) tries to get him put away, but another gang member named Prago (Don Blakely), bribes the Judge Sinclair, allowing his defender Eisenburg (Joe Spinell!) to get him off with a plea bargain. Eddie flips out, attacks the judge and ends up being the one to go to the big house.
After being saved from a jailhouse assault by Rake (Woody Strode, the former pro wrestler who was also in Keoma and Once Upon a Time in the West; as if we need any reinforcement that this movie is a western), our hero does his time and emerges ready to get bloody revenge. His wife has left him, his son is dead and now, he has nothing left to lose.
While Vigilante was successful at the box office, Lustig never saw any profits from the film at all. First, Film Ventures International wanted to rename it Street Gang**. Then, as we all know, producer Edward L. Montoro ran away in 1985 with a million dollars in company money and was never seen again.
*This role was meant for Caroline Munro.
**It played in Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh with that title.
You can watch this on Tubi or do yourself a kindness and get the 4K UHD and blu ray set from Blue Underground. It has a 16-bit print from the original 35mm camera negative, with Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos audio, along with three different commentary tracks (Lustig and co-producer Andrew Garroni; Lustig and Robert Forster, Fred Williamson and Frank Pesce; Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson), trailers, TV and radio commercials, interviews with writer Richard Vetere, Rutanya Alda and associate producer/first A.D./actor Randy Jurgensen and a book with plenty of info on the film from Michael Gingold.
This movie is great. This release is even better.