Nick (Fred Williamson) gives talks around deprived New York neighbourhoods on the subject of the rising crime rate, and what he thinks should be done about it: vigilanteism. For example, when he hears of a woman raped when arriving home at her apartment block one night, he gathers his cohorts and they descend upon the culprit, bundling him into the back of their van to mete out their own form of justice, which they don't believe the courts or police are able to do. But family man and blue collar worker Eddie Marino (Robert Forster) doesn't think that's anything to do with him...
The shadow of Michael Winner's Death Wish loomed large over American exploitation cinema, with Vigilante only one of many revenge movies that turned up in its wake. The message was always the same: the authorities do not have the power to get even with the thugs roaming the streets and making things difficult for honest citizens, so it will take one man, or woman, or occasionally a whole gang of them, to do the right thing. Unfortunately doing the right thing in these cases was often to descend to the level of the thugs, offering what the filmmakers assumed was crowdpleasing violence as righteous action was taken.
Well, the action was the draw more than the politics, as when you took a look at them they resembled some fascistic frame of mind rather than anything helpful, and so it was with this. Eddie is landed straight into the middle of this murky can of worms when his wife Vickie (Rutanya Alda) stops a gas station attendant from being attacked, with the result that the gang doing the intimidating react, shall we say, disproportionately and storm her house, killing their young son and stabbing her in the garden, leaving her for dead. Eddie is horrified, and initially appeals to the full letter of the law through D.A. Carol Lynley, but predictably things don't exactly go to plan.
In fact, the cards are so stacked against Eddie that it becomes ridiculous, as the judge gives the only one of the hoods to go to trial a two year suspended sentence in spite of all the evidence proving he and his buddies were as guilty as hell. This would have you accept that the courts are not only powerless, but actually complicit in allowing the criminals back on the streets with the merest slap on the wrist, and even more ludicrously, when Eddie flies into a rage at the judge it is he who is carted off to a maximum security prison and not the attackers. As ever, it was works like that that ignored the prison population was at its highest ever, and not due to innocent men like Eddie filling out the cells.
Still, at least when he's inside he meets Woody Strode as an old lag who advises him the best way to avoid getting beaten up, although Eddie needs his help in the assault in the shower scene. Sadly, Woody isn't in this much, so it's back home for our put upon hero, having made up his mind to take matters into his own hands and join with Nick, he having been beating up the bad guys like it was going out of fashion while Eddie was inside. Vigilante was not a high budgeted movie, but director William Lustig scored with his skill at action scenes on reduced funds, bringing chases on foot and at one stage in cars to keep things interesting. Where it fell down was its lack of self-awareness as not one of the posse of do-gooders twigs that by taking up arms against the villains they have become homicidal maniacs, with any vestiges of humanity flying out the window when they transform into killing machines. Would we really feel any safer knowing there was a civil war brewing outside? Fine music by Jay Chattaway.