When you look back at Fulciís early eighties output, or hot button exploitation like Fight For Your Life or The Hills Have Eyes, itís easy to think back to the glory days of the grindhouse. When you look at the early movies of Bill Lustig, though, you donít just think of the grindhouse, you think of the theaters, the streets and the city that made it all happen. His early movies are definitely grounded in a time and a place Ė a New York City thatís really only a memory now. Still, his movies endure, with his grimy chiller, Maniac hitting Blu-ray later this month. As a little warm up, though, hereís Lustigís riff on Death Wish, Vigilante.
The film begins with a riling call to action, with Nick (Fred ďThe HammerĒ Williamson) encouraging Ė demanding, the people of New York take back the streets from the low life thugs that have made it an unsafe cesspool of crime. Take your bats, take your guns and rise up. On the other end of the spectrum is Nickís colleague Eddie Marino (Robert Forster), who tries to live a good lawful life with his wife and child. His belief system gets put into question, however, when his son is turned into shotgun fodder, and his wife a carving board as some thugs break into his house and destroy his family. He trusts in the law to put these criminals away, but after an apathetic judge rules on the side of a corrupt defense lawyer (Joe Spinell, no doubt helping out his Maniac director with his one scene walk on) and the killer is set back onto the streets, Eddie loses it.
Heís sent to prison, where he meets a hard as nails savior, Rake (Woody Strode, the legend from 1981ís Scream), whoís got his backÖliterally, in the shower. Itís in prison for contempt of court that Eddie finds that even in a government-run institution thereís corruption and a lack of reform. Itís every man for himself. When he gets out, he approaches Nick with a new mentality. If the law isnít going to put the gang member that killed his son away, heíd do it himself. One shot isnít enough, though, as Eddie finds himself falling deeper and deeper into vigilantism as he tries to clean the streets.
While the overall concept is certainly nothing new Ė indeed itís a little too similar to Death Wish, Bill Lustig does as he did with Maniac and injects the film with a dark, nihilistic realism. There is no redemption here, no happy ending, no denouement. How could there be? Eddie is not only forced to become violent monsters he vilified earlier, but heís forced to do it alone. Even though his wife survives, spoiler coming, she up and leaves him before the final act. And she does this without even knowing heís killed her harmer. Talk about a mad world. In Death Wish, Paul Kersey killed for justice, but with nobody left to care for him, and only a grave left to avenge, Eddieís acts arenít of valor, indeed theyíre anti-heroic. Lustig takes us on an interesting journey with Forsterís character, making him a loveable family man at the start (and no doubt playing off his charisma and good will from Alligator), only to watch him unravel and take things a step (or three or four) too far. He goes past the point of sympathy, and Lustig deftly walks up and over the line between good guy and bad.
The film is for the most part straightforward in presentation, with typical action sequences with rollicking music (another synth score by Maniacís Jay Chattaway), but Lustig's ending certainly takes a bold step in going against typical Hollywood convention for an action picture. The final minute is downright chilling, and Lustig ends it with a powerful crane up to reveal the dark, smoky streets to suggest that there arenít any happy endings ahead in crime-laden New York. With his ending, Lustig challenges the foundation of Death Wish by asserting that those who aim to clean the streets with violence end up making it just as dirty with their own disregard for order. Eddieís no hero; heís a few years away from becoming Spinellís Maniac, and Lustig has brass balls for making an honest example out of his lead when so many would just play by the redemptive rulebook of most dramas.
While Lustigís outlook on New York certainly isnít as grim as the charcoal portrait he painted in Maniac, the film still does exhibit Lustigís trademark relentlessness and disregard for taste. Eddieís kid doesnít just die in this movie, his brains fly out a two story window after a thug shoots him point blank with a shotgun. Women fare little better either, getting cut up or blasted point blank, both by the good guys and the bad ones. Cops get lynched, wheelchair bound guys get assaulted and kids push dope on the streets. Lustig definitely refrains from restraint here, but his is a realism comparable to a kid turning over rocks. Heís determined to expose the creepy crawlies that often go unseen, and the hope is that in exposing them for what they are, reform might just come of it all. Considering the way New York is today, Iíd say Lustig has succeeded.
One of the perks of owning your own home video company is that you can award your own personal films with 2K video restorations. Lustig has done just that for his Vigilante, and while the film isnít the best looking of the Blue Underground catalog, itís still been given a top notch transfer. Unlike a lot of Blue Underground transfers, there doesnít seem to be any noise present, yet the image still retains a very sharp presentation (that is when the camera man isnít missing his focus marks, which happens a fair amount here). Colors really pop and have been vastly improved over previous releases. The image has a surprisingly modest grain, and often possesses measurable depth. The blacks hold true too, especially in that beautifully shot opener with Fred Williamson on black and all those truck shots of shadowed people shooting at the gun range. There are some instances when the print quality changes for the worse, notably in Forsterís first scene with his family in the park. It looks like they ran out of daylight as the scene went on and had to push it just to get a picture. At any rate, there are a few moments that make the picture inconsistent, but these flaws are inherent in the negative and not a fault of the transfer. After a few bumps in the road, Blue Underground has proven to be a consistent leader in HD presentation, and this is another fine notch on the belt.
Vigilante goes for broke audibly with a DTS-HD 7.1 mix and a full assortment of complementary tracks as well. Itís a carefully crafted, if not overly impressive, sound mix, with character voices effectively moved around the speaker setup depending on the shot thatís being used. It makes for a sort of three dimensional audio experience during the dialogue bits. Sound effects donít have a lot of directionality, but thereís definitely LFE and full matrix support during gunfire and explosions. Itís a pretty forceful track when it needs to be. Dialogue is clean and easily audible, although mixed a tad on the soft side. The track exhibits a strong range throughout and with no hiss or distortion, it sounds almost good as new. Great job.
There are two commentaries included on this release. The first is from the laserdisc and features Bill Lustig and stars Robert Forster, Fred Williamson and Frank Pesce. Williamson does as The Hammer does and takes charge, and he and Robert Forster really contribute to a live and engaging track. Lustig is the glue and keeps the boys in focus and spends a lot of time clarifying or answering their questions with that warm, jovial demeanor heís become known for. Pesce doesnít shy away from the talk either, with facts about casting or filming in New York. Itís a good, fun time.
The second commentary is new and exclusive to this release, with Lustig and Co-Producer Andrew W. Garroni giving a filmmakers account of how they got this movie made. They donít hold back on anything, sharing a lot of stories about the corners they had to cut, the hot water they treaded and all the setbacks and challenges they had to endure. For aspiring filmmakers, everything from the monetary side to the film stock, production and editing are covered at length. After the easy success of Maniac, Lustig and Garroni are quick to admit that they comparatively had a much tougher go with Vigilante, but their pain is our gain in this enlightening commentary.
The biggest surprise was the ďPromotional ReelĒ, which sounds like a nothing extra, but in truth might just be the most interesting one. It has a nice little scrolling text history at the start, detailing how Lustig needed to shoot a day with Fred Williamson in order to pitch the film to foreign markets to get financing to actually shoot the rest of his movie. The scroll explains the corners that were cut to achieve the video, and the scene (which is for all intents and purposes the beginning of the movie) follows. Itís interesting to see this often unspoken about part of the filmmaking process.
A bunch of other press is included, including a whole gangís worth of trailers. Many are in different languages without subtitles, but even the ones in English are interestingly different from one another, each one appealing to a different market. TV and radio spots follow, and a still gallery with shots of Bill Lustig, his crew and his cast during production round off the disc.
Those expecting a quality Death Wish clone should be mostly satisfied throughout the bulk of the picture. Lustig steps his game up for the finale, though, for a dark, menacing look at the New York underbelly and a ballsy deconstruction of the American hero. The 2K video restoration and the DTS-HD 7.1 audio certainly ensure the film looks and sounds better than it ever has before. With a couple nice group commentaries and a bunch of interesting promo material, this certainly does provide a fine retrospective of the grindhouse era of moviemaking, and more importantly, the whole grindhouse world Ė downtown New York, thatís but a memory now. Throughout the eighties, there was nobody else who could tell it like it was quite like Bill Lustig, and Vigilante serves as a fine partner to his better known Maniac. Worth a, erm, shot.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Another great review rhett! I had seen the movie before, but actually had never purchased it before the Blu-ray. I thought the A/V quality was top notch, and Blue underground did a solid job here.
Yes, nice review Rhett. I've always liked Vigilante, and was very pleased by the AV presentation. I hadn't watched the old AB DVD in some time, but take a look at these comparison shots, and you'll see just how improved this blu-ray is, not only in resolution, but also in extra picture (the old dvd seemed to be really zoomed in for most of the movie).
Good review, Rhett.I need to see this one again,haven't watched it in ages.
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