Vigilante Cinema: The Genre that Pushed Too Far!
From early classics like Dirty Harry to modern day hits such as the Crow, and John Wick, vigilante cinema has been a popular genre for decades. But what exactly is vigilante cinema?
Vigilante cinema is a sub-genre of action films that typically centers around a protagonist who takes the law into their own hands, seeking revenge and justice against criminals and wrongdoers. The vigilante may be a police officer, a citizen, or someone who has been wronged via a traumatic experience from being sexually assaulted to having their friends and families murdered by criminals. These films often have gone too far in their depiction of extreme violence, gore, and graphic content. They appeal to our most primal instincts and provide a sense of catharsis – we get to see the bad guys get what's coming to them.
Vigilante movies have been around for decades, but it wasn't until the 1970s that the sub-genre began to really take shape starting with 1971’s Dirty Harry starring Clint Eastwood as San Francisco Police Department Inspector Harry Callahan who uses unorthodox methods to stop a vicious serial killer named “Scorpio”. This film helped to codify the Antihero archetype not to mention relaunched Eastwood’s career post spaghetti westerns. During that year was Billy Jack a half breed Navajo, a Green Beret Vietnam War veteran, and a hapkido master who defends his girlfriend’s school from vicious Townsfolk including officials.
Billy Jack is one of the staples of counterculture films with contradiction as he is forced to use extreme measures against the locals, as opposed to waving a peace sign. The movie became an instant cult classic thanks to actor Tom Laughlin’s script and stoic performance as the vigilante which garnered a modicum of praise to the extent of the titular character being nominated within AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains.
Death Wish, released in 1974, is often credited as the film that further launched the vigilante cinema genre. This classic revenge thriller film starred Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, a man who takes justice into his own hands after his wife and daughter are brutally attacked by a gang of punks. Death Wish, despite controversy over its explicit content was a box office success. Many critics believed the film promoted vigilante justice and sparked a debate over the consequences of violence in cinema.
There are many if not most, who can empathize with the vigilante protagonist as they or their loved ones may have been victims themselves and when the judicial system fails to punish those who cause harm, therein lies an outlet for their anger.
But a year prior to Death Wish, were three major vigilante films that were among the first to boost the genre, Coffy starring Pam Grier as the titular heroine who goes on a crusade after her sister is brain damage from abusing drugs. Coffy's trail of revenge goes from pushers, pimps, Mob bosses, to a very corrupt politician at the end.
Gordon's War directed by Ossie Davis also released in 1973 is a higher budgeted blaxploitation flick that had a car chase scene inspired from William Freidkin’s French Connection. The story of Gordon's War revolves around an African-American soldier, Gordon Hudson, who has just returned from fighting in the Vietnam War. Upon his return, Gordon finds his neighborhood in Harlem, New York City overrun by drug dealers. Determined to rid his community of these criminals, he forms a vigilante group comprised of fellow Vietnam vets to push out the pushers.
And then there is 1973’s Magnum Force, the second installment in the Dirty Harry franchise with Clint Eastwood reprising his iconic role. The film's plot revolves around a group of vigilante police officers who take matters into their own hands to rid the city of criminals who have escaped justice due to a faulty legal system. What makes Magnum Force a great sequel is its edge of the seat suspense, solid supporting cast from Hal Holbrook to David Soul, and its impressive scenes and dialogue which explores themes of morality and justice.
Then came 1980’s the exterminator a B grade grindhouse film follows the exploits of John Eastland, a Vietnam War veteran living in New York City. After his friend is brutally attacked by a street gang, John takes matters into his own hands and becomes a vigilante, using his military skills to seek revenge on those who not only paralyzed mike, but goes to the extremes when lowering a mob boss into a meat grinder or incinerated a child trafficker. One of the biggest strengths of The Exterminator is its gritty, realistic portrayal of New York City in the 1980s and the violence and chaos of the gang world is depicted in all its gruesome detail. The film is also notable for its excellent performance by Robert Ginty, who delivers a convincing and sympathetic portrayal of a man pushed to the brink by the violence around him. Many critics also argued that the movie was too violent and glorified vigilantism. Another example of a vigilante movie that pushed the limits is the 1980 film, Ms .45. Directed by Abel Ferrara, the movie tells the story of a mute seamstress who is raped and then sets out to kill all men. While the movie received mixed reviews, it was praised for its stylish direction and gritty realism.
In the years that followed, vigilante cinema continued to grow in popularity. Films like First Blood, Robocop and The Crow featured protagonists who were willing to break the law in order to fight crime and corruption. These films also highlighted the darker side of vigilante justice, exploring themes of revenge, alienation, and loss of humanity. The Crow, however, was the first Supernatural vigilante comic-based movie starring Brandon Lee in his final role as Eric Draven who was you guessed it, a Man murdered along with his fiancée by a gang of punks. Draven is resurrected by a supernatural Crow and used as an avatar of vengeance. This 1994 thriller is sobering, not only due to Lee’s unfortunate accident that killed him, but the entire brooding atmosphere that in a bizarre way, makes this film into a gritty fantasy due to Alex Proyas direction and cinematography. Fast forward to the present day, and vigilante cinema shows no signs of slowing down. Prior to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 2003 introduced us to Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock a blind lawyer who fights crime in Hell's Kitchen, who at times goes beyond his moral boundaries when stopping criminals. The Punisher series of films and a Netflix television show, showcases Frank Castle's brutal attempts at seeking vengeance against those who hurt innocent civilians. These modern interpretations of vigilante justice often blur the line between hero and antihero, highlighting the moral complexities of vigilantism.
In recent years, some filmmakers have attempted to subvert the vigilante movie sub-genre with more nuanced films. For example, the 2014 movie, Blue Ruin, tells the story of a man seeking revenge for the death of his parents. However, the movie portrays the effects of violence and the emotional toll it takes on the protagonist. Vigilante Cinema is a sub-genre that has pushed too far in some instances. While some movies have glorified violence and vigilantism, others have attempted to subvert the genre with more nuanced films. Whether or not this sub-genre should continue to be explored is up for debate, but the impact of vigilante movies on popular culture cannot be denied. In conclusion, vigilante cinema has come a long way since its controversial beginnings. Critics may argue that these films tend to glorify violence, and then there are those within a demographic that see them as a necessary outlet for our darkest impulses, argue that the sub-genre is simply entertainment and should not be taken too seriously OR those who live vicariously through the protagonists enacting “justice” while questioning America’s judicial system.
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