William Lustig’s grindhouse, working class variant of Death Wish begins with a blunt statement of intent: first shot, Nick (Fred Williamson) staring into the camera, “I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve had it up to here.” He’s addressing a gathering of citizens. “You want your city back? Take it!” The title sequence rolls.
In the opening moments post titles, a thug follows a woman into her apartment elevator and attacks her. ID’d by a witness, Williamson and accomplices grab him off the street and into their van. Later he’s found on the street badly beaten. Eddie Merino (Robert Forster) is introduced spending time with his wife and kid in the park. As it turns out he works in a machine shop alongside Williamson. Eddie’s wife breaks up an assault of a gas station owner by another thug, slapping him across the kisser. Unfortunately this lout and his cronies track her home, break in, grievously injure her and murder her son.
“When I was a kid, I could sleep with the windows open,” laments Merino. Williamson reveals the gun he carries, “That’s my judge and jury.” Troubled by the possibility of vigilantism becoming part of the problem, Merino tries to go through the criminal justice system. He enlists the help of D.A. Mary Fletcher (Carol Lynley) to pursue justice in the courts. Joe Spinell, Lustig’s titular Maniac, plays a crooked lawyer who bags a light sentence for one of the gang. Incensed, Merino attacks the judge and is thrown into the slammer for contempt of court. After Merino’s hard scrabble to survive in the joint he’s released and teams up with Williamson’s vigilante crew to track down the bastards who destroyed his family.
Lustig’s Vigilante is raw and potent and unabashedly manipulative. The moment when the little boy is slaughtered with a shotgun is particularly grim. The D.A. Fletcher rattles off statistics that detail how many violent crimes go unpunished. Yet the collateral damage of vigilante action is also unflinchingly portrayed. A prostitute who happens to be with one of the thugs is shot dead. In retaliation for the vigilante murder of one of their own, the gang slaughters two cops in a hail of bullets.
Though skillfully shot with an appropriate level of grit and grime, Vigilante feels a bit half-baked. The whole thing wraps up in a brisk 89 minutes, leaving several elements unexplored or underdone. The cast is uniformly excellent and there’s a terrifically kinetic car chase full of squealing tires and twisted metal. But at the end of the picture it feels as though the whole thing, while engaging, is fairly disposable.
William Lustig and Andrew Garroni wrote the screenplay, based on a story by playwright Richard Vetere. The film began shooting near Long Island City, NY in October 1981. Vigilante premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 1982. Two years later, William Lustig considered rereleasing it due to the notoriety surrounding Bernhard Goetz shooting of four alleged attackers in the New York City subway.
Like all Blue Underground’s stellar work, the picture on this 4K disc is crystal clear while retaining the integrity of the filmic look. The 4K disc has three audio commentaries:
- Co-Producer/Director William Lustig and Co-Producer Andrew Garroni
- Co-Producer/Director William Lustig and Stars Robert Forster, Fred Williamson and Frank Pesce
- Film Historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson
Special features on a blu ray disc are:
- Blue Collar DEATH WISH – Interviews with Writer Richard Vetere, Star Rutanya Alda, Associate Producer/First A.D./Actor Randy Jurgensen, and others
- Urban Western – Interview with Composer Jay Chattaway
- Theatrical Trailers
- TV Spots
- Radio Spot
- Promotional Reel
- Poster and Still Galleries
The package also includes a booklet with an essay by Michael Gingold. Thanks to Blue Underground’s meticulous care and attention, the disc is a worthy purchase for all fans of Lustig’s filmography and of exploitation flicks in general.