The unnecessary Death Wish remake is finally upon us and—as expected—the outcry is louder than a revolver going off in an elevator. On one hand, there’s the argument that it’s wrongheaded NRA fap material and ill-timed due to the current debate surrounding gun control; on the other, it’s a remake of a cult classic made by a polarizing director and starring a sleepwalking action star who can’t hold a candle to the great Charles Bronson. Either way, we don’t expect this movie to enjoy a long shelf life and take its place among genre cinema’s most celebrated vigilante yarns.
Fortunately, though, there are lots of great vigilante movies out there and we’d rather celebrate those rather than waste our energies thinking about the new one. So, we figured now would be the perfect opportunity to round up our staff and pay tribute to some of our favorite exercises in cinematic street justice. This list will focus on movies which take place in urban environments and focus on relatable human characters. At least as ‘relatable’ as movies featuring people taking the law into their own hands to wage war on crime can be.
This isn’t a definitive ranking piece either. This is merely some recommendations by our staff, so you can expect quite a mix of titles based on their unique preferences. However, we encourage you to share your favorites with us as well.
The Born Losers (1967)
The world’s longest biker movie is also the shortest Billy Jack movie! The idea for the Billy Jack character had been floating around in writer/star/director Tom Laughlin’s head for years, but The Born Losers would be filmgoers introduction to him. Billy Jack’s post-Civil Rights era idealism, youth movement anti-authoritarianism, Navajo spiritualism, and the very American tradition of violent individualism all point to a discrete cultural moment. An action star philosopher battling the cattle rustlers of his day, biker gangs.
Sunbaked with clear skies, the beach town Big Rock, California stands in for the grimy streets where we would usually find violent vigilante justice. Billy Jack (played by Laughlin) comes down from the mountain and immediately runs afoul of the titular biker gang who are in the midst of sorting out some road rage after an accident. During the scuffle, Billy Jack is arrested for using a gun and the bikers go free. Naturally, Billy Jack is hot over this. The Losers rip up the town, rape, kidnap, and generally bully everybody. Billy Jack rescues the young, defiant Vicky (played by credited writer Elizabeth James) and bullets meet brains. The ending sets up a sequel as Billy Jack’s fate is on the line.
The Born Losers benefits from a cast of exploitation movie all-stars. Jane Russell appears as the mother of one of the victims, looking like a cross between Ginger and Mrs. Howell. Russ Meyer fans will recognize Stuart Lancaster (the Old Man from 1965s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) as the small town sheriff. Biker movie regular Jeremy Slate teeters on the edge of menacing and comical as the gang leader, Danny, dressed in a leather vest, puffy beret, and huge shades. And what AIP biker movie would be complete without the piercing fuzz guitar of Davie Allan?
Billy Jack is a street-cleaning vigilante driven by idealism, rather than revenge. Born Losers is a proactive film, not reactive. The antiheroes of the coming decades–Harry Callahan, John Rambo, Paul Kersey–had not yet grown bitter. Is it any wonder that Easy Rider (1969) came out after The Born Losers? – Klon Waldrip
Get Carter (1971)
This 1971 Mike Hodges-directed gem explodes off the screen with lead actor Michael Caine playing Jack Carter, a hardened gangster who’s simultaneously having an affair with his boss’ girlfriend and hunting down his brother’s killer. Along the way, Carter will leave a string of bloodied corpses in his wake as he goes about connecting the dots to his brother’s murder. Based on Ted Lewis’ 1969 pulp novel Jack’s Return Home, Get Carter has been called the British equivalent of Mean Streets.
Director Hodges and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky both came from a background in documentary filmmaking, and here they employ the techniques they learned, lending a very real, natural feeling to the proceedings. The script is taut, and Caine delivers a magnificent performance that is easily one of his best. In 1999, Get Carter was ranked #16 on the British Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 British Films of All Time. It has also inspired just about every filmmaker working in the crime genre today, and above all of that, it’s just a really badass movie. – Andrew J. Rausch
The Blaxploitation boom gave us many delightful films that spanned a variety of genres, and you bet your jive ass vigilante flicks were included. Coffy, directed by the legendary Jack Hill, follows our titular heroine (played by the untouchable Pam Grier) as she blasts her way through drug pushers and corrupt politicians after her sister dies from a drug overdose. Coffy, however, isn’t just a fun exploitation yarn where bad guys get shot in the dick; it’s also the movie that made Grier a big star and helped pave the way for more action movies featuring female leads to emerge. Grier brings the ruckus and plenty of attitude while simultaneously embracing her femininity and cultural heritage. It’s a career-defining performance, and one of the best action movies ever created thanks to her. – Kieran Fisher
Death Wish (1974)
Though I occasionally see some hand-wringing from cult movie fans about how this is a pro-vigilante right-wing fantasy, I personally represent a platform of putting your politics aside for all Charles Bronson films. For fuck’s sake. This film, directed by Michael Winner, establishes the basic premise of the series: the city (New York here and in most of the films, though some of the later entries are set in Los Angeles) is a place of violence and terror; and also, if you’re a woman who is married to, related to, in the employ of—or in later films, dating, the daughter of someone who is dating, or even live in the same building as—architect Paul Kersey, you are going to be tortured, raped, and murdered, or some combination thereof by random gangs of creepy men (including a young Jeff Goldblum in his screen debut). Kersey will then brush his mustache, iron his polyester suit, and kill everyone involved with your death. The cops will do nothing to impede this, because, let’s face it, they were basically useless in ‘70s Manhattan. – Samm Deighan
Truck Turner (1974)
Oh, if all movies could be so ruthlessly dedicated to entertaining an audience! If you’ve never seen a Blaxploitation film, Truck Turner (1974) would make an excellent introduction. Isaac Hayes’ Oscar winning theme song to Shaft (1971) is as iconic to the genre as John Barry’s James Bond theme is to 60s spy films, but you’ve got to admit Shaft is a bit dry and underused Hayes’ score. Truck Turner puts Hayes on the soundtrack and right in the title role, allowing him to beat people up and say things like “tell ’em you been hit by a truck—Mac ‘Truck’ Turner!”
The story concerns a guy named Truck hunting down a guy named Gator, then a guy named Blue starts hunting down the guy named Truck. During the course of its hour and a half, there are fistfights, countless hookers, Dick Miller, Scatman Crothers, nudity, a pimp funeral, car chases, a battle through a hospital, and somehow in all this there’s still space for incredible performances from Nichelle Nichols and Yaphet Kotto. The dialogue is finely aged jive talk with lines like “Turner’s like a bulldog with eyes up his ass!” and “her clients call her Colonel Sanders because she’s finger lickin’ good.” What a sales pitch!
Before directing Truck Turner, Jonathan Kaplan had just made a few sexy workplace movies (Night Call Nurses ) and The Student Teachers ) for Roger Corman and American International Pictures. The studio released some of the best films in the genre—Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), Blacula (1972), and Black Caesar (1973) just to name a few, so you know you’re in good hands. – Klon Waldrip
Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s meditation on loneliness hit theaters in 1976. Taxi Driver, starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybil Shepard, and Albert Brooks, is a slow burn, deep dive into the psyche of a Vietnam vet named Travis Bickle (De Niro), who can’t sleep and wants a job where he can just work long hours. He floats through a New York City that he can’t interact with and hates with a boiling passion. He creates unhealthy attachments to two women-one an upper-middle class woman (Shepard) who works for the campaign office of presidential candidate Palantine and a teenage prostitute (Foster) Travis believes he can save.
Though it’s never directly addressed in the film, Bickle likely suffers from combat fatigue, or PTSD as we call it now, but he probably already had a touch of psychosis before ‘Nam. It’s obvious that violence is in his nature as he embraces not just the darker impulses of his soul, but the false sense of power/bravery that comes with holding a gun. He plays tough guy in the mirror, practicing his quick-draw on imaginary foes, but when he fails to assassinate Palantine as revenge for Betsy (Shepard) rejecting him, he falls apart, spiraling in fear and anxiety until he can shift gears and focus his energy into saving Iris (Foster).
Travis Bickle inhabits a New York City that probably isn’t much different for him than Vietnam. The enemy is out there, but not always visible. The atmosphere is perpetually hostile. People live in a constant state of fight or flight. The streets are a pressure cooker. To Bickle, the city is an open sewer, with all it’s sex, and degradation, and vice. He dreams of a day a real rain will come and wash the filth off the streets, until he has a gun in his hand and comes to believe that he is that rain…”Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.” The bloody finale is one of the most intense scenes in cinema history. – Tim Murr
Rolling Thunder (1977)
Rolling Thunder is, for many, the definitive end-all-be-all revenge flick. The screenplay was written by Paul Schrader and then rewritten by Heywood Gould. In some ways, the film, which chronicles a Vietnam vet returning stateside only to find himself a participant in a completely different kind of war, is even grittier and more violent than Schrader’s Taxi Driver, released the previous year. Sadly, many casual film buffs aren’t aware of its existence, due in part to a longtime unavailability in the DVD format. Thankfully, this problem has since been rectified and is currently available on both DVD and blu-ray.
Rolling Thunder tells the story of Air Force Major Charles Rane (William Devane), a seven-year P.O.W. who returns home to lose both his hand and his family in the bloodiest of fashions to a band of baddies led by Roscoe P. Coltrane himself, James Best. Armed with a prosthetic hook and a sawed-off shotgun, Rane, along with an old military buddy (played by Tommy Lee Jones), goes about hunting down the no good sons of bitches one after another. In the process, many villains are shot to hell and/or receive the obligatory prosthetic hook to the balls. – Andrew J. Rausch
The Exterminator (1980)
This is one savage little movie. Part Death Wish knockoff, part grim portrait of NYC at the time, and part examination of post-Vietnam anxieties, the story follows a veteran, armed with his trusty flamethrower, as he blazes justice throughout the city. The film opens with one of the nastiest decapitations you’re ever likely to see in a fictionalized setting, and the butchering doesn’t let up from there. Needless to say, it’s a movie that lives up to its name and then some; however, if you like your action fare with an unprecedented mean streak look no further. – Kieran Fisher
Ms. 45 (1981)
Unique in the annals of early rape revenge films, director Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 has a script written by its female star, Zoe Tamerlis Lund. At times dreamlike and surreal, the film follows mute fashion assistant in New York City, Thana (ostensibly named for Thanatos, the Greek personification of death), who is raped two times in a single day: first in an alley and later by a burglar who breaks into her apartment. This horrifying trauma transforms the meek young woman into an angel of death—Angel of Vengeance is the film’s alternate title—determined to slaughter the city’s predators and perverts, culminating in a gorgeous, eerie sequence of mass destruction at a Halloween party. Ms. 45 charts Thana’s path from terrorized victim into amoral killer and is one of the few early rape revenge films to give its female protagonist agency—or to include creative input behind the scenes from a woman. While it is certainly regarded as an exploitation classic, the film strips many of the more titillating elements that can be found in other rape-revenge titles from the period, leaving behind a melancholic, paranoid meditation on urban terror. – Samm Deighan
Bill Lustig, a figure of royal status in the kingdom that is 1980s NYC grime, is perhaps most remembered for his nasty slasher Maniac (1980) and the Maniac Cop series, but this has always been my favorite movie of his. Like Death Wish, the story follows a man (played by the untouchable Robert Forster) out to deliver his own brand of justice after his family is brutalized by goons. Joining him are his best buddy (played by the untouchable Fred Williamson) and their blue-collar factory friends. It’s a simple vigilante tale about pissed off regular Joe’s cleaning up the streets, but its underlying criticism of the American justice system adds some fire to proceedings. Still, that’s all under the surface; what we have here is an entertaining urban western that’s spearheaded by two icons of genre film and that’s all we need. – Kieran Fisher
Death Wish II (1982)
Michael Winner returned as director, but this film—like the rest in the series, more or less—was produced by the great Golan and Globus under their Cannon Films umbrella. Probably the best thing about this second entry, aside from the majestic presence of Charles Bronson, is the moody, unforgettable score from Jimmy Page. This film is also particularly bananas, because Kersey’s daughter, who survived her experiences from the first film in a tormented, catatonic state, is raped again and murdered—and you’ve got to wonder what those kinds of odds are, but it explains why Kersey losing his fucking shit completely. – Samm Deighan
During a police strike in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a group of right-wing extremists calling themselves “The New Order” terrorise the staff and patrons of a gay bar. The bar’s owner is accidently killed during the fracas, so the thugs gun down any potential witnesses. The sole surviving customer manages to escape and takes refuge with a sympathetic couple living in a nearby tenement. What follows is a night of tension, terror and bloodshed as the trio fight back against the gang with arms, traps and barricades.
Gripping, solid and brilliantly executed, fans of the genre can’t go wrong with Siege. This Canadian vigilante shocker is fast-paced and teeming with grimy, seedy atmosphere, concluding with a genuinely unexpected twist ending. To date Siege has never officially been released on DVD or Blu-Ray, but this grim slice of urban carnage is well worth the hunt. – Michelle Alexander
Walking the Edge (1985)
When housewife Christine (Nancy Kwan) escapes the hit that kills her husband and young son (first scene kids, minor spoiler only), she also finds out her hubby was not the upstanding citizen she believed him to be. He was a drug dealer and, getting over the realisation her beloved was in actual fact a scumbag, Christine determines their kid didn’t deserve anything and the gang that did it should get what’s coming to them. Along the way, taxi driver and occasional numbers runner Jason (Robert Forster) gets involved. The body-count escalates as Christine’s rage-fuelled revenge killings don’t go to plan and yet Jason is compelled to help her survive. Walking the Edge could be considered the sunnier-setting companion piece to Forster’s Vigilante. Both deal in what in other hands could be straight-ahead revenge scenarios, but like with Lustig’s classic, writer Curt Allen and director Norbert Meisel don’t offer easy answers. Instead the moral waters are left purposefully muddy, the entire film messy like humans. Characters don’t make ‘movie character’ decisions, instead they act more like real people who don’t have plot progression to consider. Forster is as ever excellent and is ably matched by Kwan and the film itself is an underrated and sadly little seen (no recent R1 DVD release, no Blu-ray…nada) minor classic. – James Evans
Death Wish 3 (1985)
Probably my personal favorite in the series is this film, the final entry from director Michael Winner. Kersey returns to New York City to help the inhabitants of a derelict apartment tenement take on AN ENTIRE GANG, as you do when you’re Charles Bronson. In a loosely similar vein to films like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), The Warriors (1979), and Escape from New York (1981), I am reluctant to say too much about this film, because I wouldn’t want to detract from its splendor. The day you watch it just might be the best day of your life—it definitely will if you pair it with Death Wish 4. In this entry, Kersey is given unofficial police support, finds a cache of functional WWII-era military weapons, and one of the creeps he has to take down is named the Giggler. Yes, you read that right: the Giggler. – Samm Deighan
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)
I could tell you that this is directed by the great J. Lee Thompson, that it’s set in LA, is super ‘80s and involves the drug trade, and features a firefight in a roller skating rink, but all you really need to know is that Charles Bronson kills a man with a grenade launcher. With that information you either already know that this is the best movie in the series, or you’re just wrong. – Samm Deighan
Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1995)
Bronson cannot be stopped in this final installment, where he faces off against Michael Parks (yes, this is really a gift from the heavens, directly to you). The setting returns to New York City, finally—though the film was shot in Toronto for tax purposes—and it boasts some of the most insane, hilarious sequences of vengeance, including a lethal cannoli, an explosive soccer ball, a backwards jump through a window that is more majestic than I have the space to convey here, and a showdown in a dress factory that must be seen to be believed. Essentially Kersey is back in New York and in the witness protection program, but decides to punch his vengeance card once more thanks to the violent behavior of his girlfriend’s (Lesley-Anne Down) mobster ex-husband (the divine Parks). Really though, the plot in this film doesn’t matter. I would be willing to arm wrestle, or possibly duel, anyone who thinks the fucking bullshit Death Wish remake is more entertaining than Death Wish V. – Samm Deighan
The Boondock Saints (1999)
In the wake of Tarantino’s arrival on the film scene in the early ‘90s, anyone who knew which direction to point a camera and could string a few swear words together was hailed as the ‘next Quentin’ and ‘Tarantino-esque’ became almost a genre in and of itself. One of the most notorious of these is Troy Duffy, who wrote and directed The Boondock Saints. The documentary Overnight (2003) about the making of the film and how Duffy tried to parlay this into a career for his band is an uncomfortable piece of real-life comedy of ego.
The Boondock Saints, meanwhile, tells of two Irish-American brothers, Connor and Murphy MacManus, who come to believe they are on a mission from God to rid Boston of crime. Their murders of various mob-affiliated thugs bring them to the attention of Willem Dafoe’s FBI agent as well as the mafia boss Papa Joe who unleashes mad-dog hitman Il Duce on the brothers. That The Boondock Saints works as a film and achieved cult success is not really down to Duffy. The script is full of profanity and the vigilante themes are unsubtle, and as director Duffy is concerned with things appearing ‘cool’ rather than developing a style of his own. And yet, in amongst the mess and flash there’s some decent commentary on those vigilante themes and his performers bring a lot to invest in their characters. And in almost any sequence that involves Dafoe it achieves an impressive mix of queasiness and black comedy that has to be seen to be believed. It’s the very definition of a film that becomes more than the sum of its patchwork parts and whilst not particularly ‘good’, is most certainly entertaining. That’s why, despite bombing spectacularly in theatres, it became a cult hit on video leading to a belated sequel a decade later. – James Evans
A History of Violence (2005)
With the story of a straight-to-video Steven Seagal mobster movie, A History of Violence isn’t the sort of film that usually winds up with Oscar nominations. The strength of Josh Olson’s screenplay (loosely adapted from a graphic novel) lured director David Cronenberg to the project. Best known for his science fiction work, Cronenberg had never made a noir thriller, but the themes of dual identity, paranoia, intimacy, and violence were quite familiar to him. How different is the mafia from the Spectacular Optical Corporation, anyway?
The story concerns a small town family man, Tom (played by Viggo Mortensen), who halts a robbery in his diner. A waitress is threatened and Tom murders the two criminals so quickly that it’s clear that he’s stood over bodies before. Everyone in the town claims that Tom is a hero and he winds up on the local news, but the Irish mob in Philly take notice. The joy in A History of Violence is the unfolding, so I’ll leave the plot summary at that, but through the course of the movie everyone’s hands get a little dirty.
Cronenberg famously employs the same production team from film to film; you can expect to hear a Howard Shore score and see Peter Suschitzky camerawork, he even hires his sister as costume designer. The fearless performances from the entire cast give the film an emotional impact and allow the brutality in the subject matter to resonate. At the center is Viggo Mortensen as Tom who goes from reserved townie in one frame to hardened kill in the next. Maria Bello’s subtle but powerful performance as Tom’s wife Edie serves as the audience’s stand in; she’s shared herself fully with Tom, who, in turn, has hidden his past entirely. Ed Harris and William Hurt play the cold-hearted mobsters willing to shatter the whole world to settle a grudge.
The film came as a surprise to almost everyone in 2005. After a decade of buddy cop comedies, Michael Bay one-liner extravaganzas, Tarantino postmodern knock offs, and secret agent technothrillers, action fans were unaccustomed to something so intimate and character driven. Cronenberg fans were equally surprised as his previous handful of films had been pulsating head-trips like Spider (2002) and Crash (1996), with the exception of the underrated eXistenz (1999), he hadn’t made anything so visceral since Naked Lunch (1991). – Klon Waldrip
Hobo With a Shotgun (2011)
This Canadian indie feature from director Jason Eisener started life as a faux trailer for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007) project. When it was finally brought to life a few years later, Rutger Hauer had been cast as the lead and it became an instant cult smash. And rightfully so. Hauer’s filmography is littered with outlandish gems, but this was the role he was born to play as he eats glass, shoots his way through scumbags, befriends a prostitute and talks about the wisdom of bears, all the while hanging on to a dream that he’ll be able to by a lawnmower someday and make an honest living cutting grass.
Unlike most post-Grindhouse throwbacks, this isn’t some self-impressed audience-winking shitfest that tries too hard. Eisener’s movie comes from a place of authenticity and love for drive-in genre fare and cult films. It’s like a Sergio Leone western set in Tromaville, with sprinkles of Walter Hill, Saturday Morning Cartoons, and splatter. This world is populated by derelicts, gangsters, dirty cops, child molesting Santa’s, and ancient demonic hitmen whose list of casualties include Jesus and Joan of Arc. And they all end up on a one way trip to hell. Riding SHOTGUN. – Kieran Fisher