William Lustig's films demonstrate the man's skills but also his failings as a director. He has a track record of choosing fine actors and good writers whose work often improves his own, but I feel that his films often succeed despite his direction. In Maniac the film achieves its pounding depressing impact because of Joe Spinnell's conviction in his performance and the camera often gets so lost in this acting that the rest of the world ceases to matter and any filmic message is lost in the director's obsessive focus on Spinnell. Similarly, what works about Maniac Cop is Larry Cohen's wit and film literacy which is almost at odds with the unsubtle and confused direction - some actors are in a thriller, some are in a horror movie and others are doing satire. Being a fine director may involve the ability to know good acting and to use good scripts, but it also includes the ability to keep the whole of a film together and set a clear tone for the project. On this score I am not sure about Bill.
Vigilante makes some excellent choices in its casting too and any film with Fred Williamson in is worth the price of admission, let alone the additional casting of Robert Forster in his pre-Jackie Brown days. The film also has some opportunities to excel in its genre by including chase sequences, a prison shower scene and courtroom drama. In the commentary, Lustig talks about his inspiration being the euro-crime films of Enzo Castellari and Umberto Lenzi and these are fine inspirations indeed. So you could say that here Robert Forster plays the Franco Nero role of Eddie Marino, a regular guy whose life is wrecked after his wife and child are involved in a gang attack. He discovers that the men he works with are part of a vigilante gang and after a humiliating experience in court where the killers go free, he decides to take matters into his own hands.
Fred Williamson inspires me with confidence whatever the film he is in, all movies should star the "Hammer" for his way with dialogue and action. In Vigilante Lustig clearly shares my view and divides up the narrative between the education of Eddie Marino and the assertive action of the "Hammer", and this allows Forster to do basic decency and quiet rage whilst Williamson kicks some ass. I can see the sense in this, however it means that two movies are spliced together when the better route was to have Williamson as a supporting character to Forster's tale of anger or to excise Forster entirely and just enjoy Williamson cleaning house. Both actors are fine and watchable but their stories end up in competition and the effect is for the narrative to not hold together causally. This lack of clear intent is further evidenced in the motivation for the film, what Lustig is trying to achieve is unclear and seemingly contradictory. Forster's character travels from being apolitical to seeking personal revenge and finally moves on to political revenge. As a journey this would be fair enough although Forster's playing of his character makes the final journey an unsubstantiated one and when he completes his revenge against the gang who attacked his family he goes to lay his incriminating gun down by the scene as a gestural confession and a sign that he still knows right from wrong. This is fair enough if the next time we see him he wasn't trying to commit political assassination. This is inconsistent and it reflects a desire to end the film with any kind of point more than where the character would be. The same thing happens with Williamson's character: we see him describing one character as untouchable and protected from justice but then he disproves his own words through his own actions in meting out impossible retribution. I realise that this is an exploitation film and that similar contradictions exist in the films that Lustig cites as inspiration but those films compensate for their lack of coherence with a tremendous driving passion and belief which is wholly absent here.
Giving the film its dues, Vigilante is involving and the leads are on good form, and, even if the film doesn't come together, it is still exciting and sometimes thrilling. Forster reminds us what a good actor he is, Joe Spinnell does a typical seedy turn as a corrupt lawyer and Carol Lynley cameos as the District Attorney. Jay Chattaway's score does a fine job of keeping the pace up and it is interspersed with the work of the splendidly monikered Willie Colon. My main gripe is that the film ends poorly when a proper vision could have achieved so much more. The ending seems to be suggesting that the correct response to our corrupt world is to attack those who allow it to stay that way, the careerist lawyers and by-the-book judges. The film suggests that the way to do this is by being sneakier than them - and this muddled amoral message sums up the confusion at the heart of this project. Vigilante has great ingredients and fine energy but it is a confused mess.
Vigilante comes as a single disc release with a dustcover which copies the box art exactly. Blue Underground give the film a fine sharp anamorphic transfer at the OAR of 2.35:1. Quite a dark film at times but the contrast is well managed here as is the gritty colour scheme. Edge enhancement is minor, grain is negligible and the film does look very well visually. The release comes with a number of audio tracks including options for the French, German and Italian markets as well as Spanish subtitles. The English tracks come in 2.0 surround, 6.1 DTS and 5.1 Dolby Digital. The 5.1 track has good mixing of dialogue and music across the speakers but some of the sound effects are not situated well spatially with the rear speakers rarely used for effects. The DTS track is a clearer version of the 5.1 which felt more enveloping to me than the 5.1 and the surround track was much like the 5.1 with the exception of dialogue only appearing at the front of the mix.
The film also boasts an excellent commentary which reunites the films stars with Lustig. Unsurprisingly the Hammer dominates proceedings with tall tales and his favourite subject - himself. He tells a tale of having his superbowl ring stolen from his hotel room in the Bronx and having it returned to him by Police later with the proviso that he asks no questions. The group are having fun throughout and are fond of the film and the commentary is a fine listen. The other extras include radio and TV spots and a promotional reel made for an Italian film festival which is the Williamson opening speech of the film. The video on these extras is a bit battered and does look as if it has come from VCR sources. Trailers for the film and a photo gallery complete the package.
I am a sucker for Williamson and think this film would have been far the worse without him. This package has a good commentary and surprisingly no interviews with cast and crew, but it is a fine release anyway. The film doesn't match the efforts of Castellari or Lenzi in this genre, still it is a pleasant waste of time.