The year is 1982 and New York City has gone to Hell. While honest, hard-working people try to make a living and take care of their families, the streets are ruled by gangs and drug dealers. The police and the legal system impotent in the face of intimidation and corruption. Maybe it’s time for the citizens to take the streets back, by force if necessary.
That’s what Nick (Fred Williamson) and most of his friends believe. Eddie Marino (Robert Forster) disagrees. He says that people taking the law into their own hands will just lead to more violence and death. The vigilantes will become just a bloodthirsty as the criminals. While Eddie is debating policy with Nick, Eddie’s wife (Rutanya Alda) is threatening to call the police on a Che Guevara look-alike who she spots trying to set a gas station attendant on fire. Eddie’s wife is stabbed. His son is killed. And when the man responsible is allowed to walk by a crooked judge, Eddie’s courtroom outburst leads to him being sent to jail.
Eddie spends 30 days in jail, fighting off predators and befriending a mysterious inmate named Rake (Woody Strode). When Eddie is finally released, his traumatized wife no longer wants to be married to him but Eddie has found a new purpose in life. Working with Nick, Eddie tracks down and murders the men who have destroyed his family.
One of the many films to be inspired by the success and enduring popularity of the original Death Wish, Vigilante is a classic of its kind. Director William Lustig wastes no time in establishing New York City as being a graffiti-decorated war zone where good is fighting a losing war against evil and most of the victims are just innocent bystanders. The New York of Vigilante looks even worse than it did in Lustig’s previous film, Maniac. (Maniac’s Joe Spinell plays one a crooked lawyer in Vigilante.) The action is brutal and bloody. While Forster fights for his life in prison, the people who killed his son are allowed to run free. It’s not subtle but, by the time Forster finally walks out of jail, you’ll be more than on his side and ready to see him get his revenge. With his trademark intensity, Robert Forster is believable as someone who goes from aborhing to violence to being a stone cold killer who doesn’t even flinch when he shoots a defenseless man. As Nick, Fred Williamson is his usual confident self. Williamson may not have much range as an actor but he has such a forceful screen presence that he dominates any scene in which he appears.
Vigilante is a grim film, with Eddie ultimately going further than almost any other screen vigilante before him. It’s also a deeply satisfying film because it appeals to everyone’s desire for revenge. In the real world, vigilantes are often as dangerous as the people they’re trying to keep off the streets. In the movies, though, they’re easy to root for. They present easy and direct solutions to complex problems. Even a film as dark as Vigilante works as a sort of wish fulfillment. With crime on the rise and the constant news reports about innocent victims who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s easy to root for Nick and Eddie as it once was for Paul Kersey.