William Lustig is an honored name among cult-movie collectors for his DVD entrepreneurship, mainly as the proprietor of the Blue Underground video line. He gained cult credibility as a director, his best known works being the 1980 slasher film Maniac and the 1988 extravaganza Maniac Cop ("You have the right to remain silent ... forever."). Between these landmarks Lustig got involved with the vigilante genre, taking the most obvious yet unused-to-date title for his 1983 picture. Lustig's Vigilante is a stripped-down version of the archetype, notable for an absence of either introspection or much in the way of cheerleading. Vigilantism is simply taken as a phenomenon, an inevitable reaction to systemic injustice as a bystander is sucked into the maelstrom. Robert Forster plays Eddie Marino, whose co-workers, led by Fred Williamson's Nick, are clandestine vigilantes. We see them in action dragging a rapist off a street corner ("Slime!" one yells at the criminal). We later learn that the gang broke nearly every bone in the perp's body. The cops seem to have a clue who's doing this stuff, but no evidence. After one warns Nick, Eddie wonders what's going on but wants to keep his nose clean. He'll soon think differently after his wife insults a gang member at a gas station. His gang follows her home, tears up the place, tears her up pretty bad, and blasts her little son to death with a shotgun -- we see a window explode with bits of red on the fragments. Eddie assumes a legal remedy is at hand and an earnest prosecutor encourages that belief. But the gangs have the power and the money, so that the gang leader plea-bargains his way to a suspended sentence and Eddie gets sent to jail for going nuts and attacking the judge. During his two months in stir he's saved from rape only by an old con (Woody Strode), and the near-miss hardens his attitude even further. Once free, he learns that his traumatized wife is leaving him; she wants no reminders of the past. Vigilante is nearly Kafkaesque in its accumulation of injustices and indignities on its poor protagonist. But never mind the literary pretension. Lustig's film is a coiled spring that takes pressure until it releases. Eddie wants in on Nick's vigilante gang, who help him track down the gang members so he can wipe them out. But that's not all. The film closes on an ambivalent note -- at least I felt ambivalent about it -- when Eddie extends his vengeance campaign to the judge who put him in jail. Is that going too far? Lustig doesn't give us time to dwell on it, though the finish means it's up to us, not him, to decide whether Eddie has crossed one line too many. All the film tells us is that Eddie was pushed too far and pushed back.
Forster makes a good everyman hero without having to do much fancy acting, while Fred Williamson's limitations as an actor work in his favor here, underscoring his character's singleminded fanaticism. What he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in disquieting intensity. The locations look appropriately grungy, and the film as a whole has a look that qualifies it for "last film of the Seventies" consideration. There's nothing special about the action or the film's big car chase, but the film moves briskly. It definitely ends briskly, and it's bound to seem incomplete to anyone curious about the consequences for Eddie, Nick and their friends. You're tempted to wonder whether there was more story to tell, but no more money to tell it with. Another, more unsettling reading is possible. Our expectation that there should be more to the story is based on an assumption that the protagonists' vigilantism is exceptional, with necessary implications for the transgressors. Ending the film without the usual soul-searching or police manhunt creates a counter-impression that Eddie's reaction has become a normal one, or at least an inevitable one, in his present-day dystopia. It isn't really a satisfying finish, but maybe it wasn't meant to be.
Darrligsmag uploaded this version of the original trailer to YouTube. Note the second-person spiel toward the end: you, not Forster's character, have to take a stand, it seems.