The time is 1982. The place is Hell on Earth, also known as Philadelphia. Crime is out of control and the police are powerless to stop it. When deli owner John D’Angelo (Tom Skerritt) and his wife, Lisa (Patti LuPone), confront a pimp named Eldorado (Pete Richardson), he rams his car into the back of their car, causing the pregnant Lisa to lose her unborn child. At almost the exact same time, John’s mother (Gina DeAngles) is mugged by two thugs who chop off her ring finger.
In the grand tradition of Charles Bronson, John decides to fight back. But he doesn’t go it alone. With his best friend, a police officer named Vince (Michael Sarrazin), John starts the People’s Neighborhood Patrol. The PNP is going to clean up Philadelphia, one street at a time. The media (represented by David Rasche) make John into a celebrity. The black community (represented by Yaphet Kotto) suspect that John and the PNP are guilty of racial discrimination. The Mafia wants to bring John over to their side. John runs for city council but he still has time to drop a grenade in a pimp’s car.
Fighting Back was one of the many urban vigiliante films to come out after the success of Death Wish. Fighting Back‘s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, also produced Death Wish but made the mistake of later selling the rights to Cannon. Fighting Back was not the box office success that either Death Wish or its sequels were, even though Fighting Back is actually the better movie. That’s because Fighting Back was directed by the underrated Lewis Teague. Teague does a good job of making Philadelphia look like a war zone and the scenes of vigilante justice are enjoyable but, overall, Teague takes a far more ambiguous approach to vigilantism than Michael Winner did when he directed Death Wish. As vile as Philadelphia criminals may be, John D’Angelo isn’t always that likable himself. When Kotto accuses John and the all-white PNP of being racially prejudiced, Teague suggests that he has a point. Tom Skerritt gives a good performance, playing John as a proud, blue collar guy who wants to do the right thing but gets seduced by his newfound celebrity.
Better acted than Death Wish and smarter than The Exterminator, Fighting Back is an underrated vigilante gem.