Was New York City in its debt-saddled, under-patrolled, crime-capital days ever really this Stygian? The wish-fulfillment appeal of vigilantism certainly isn’t the same in our current hyper-chaperoned metropolis, but don’t forget that militant citizens-on-patrol like Curtis Sliwa and Bernie Goetz really did once capture the city’s attention.
The prototypical urban-vigilante film—as distinct from cinematic Wild West “justice,” to which these movies owe much—was Michael Winner’s Death Wish, released in 1974, three years after Harry Callahan tossed his badge and a few months after Frank “The Punisher” Castle debuted in Spider-Man #129. In it, a good man loses his family to crime and goes on an extralegal retaliatory rampage. Conscientious critics blanched at Death Wish‘s visceral kick; Charles Bronson was never forgiven—see The New York Times eagerly misreporting his military record in their emasculating obituary. Audiences, however, ate it up; from Minutemen to lynch mobs to Castle Doctrines to United 93, vigilantism retains a privileged place in the anarchic American imagination.
The Anthology Film Archives series “NYC Vigilantes” is blessed by ample specimens of a now-endangered screen species: the Great Northeastern City Dude, a battered, had-it-up-to-here guy whose natural musk of stale bodega coffee marks his biological difference from the stubbly prettyboy with tie askance. Alongside “Il Brutto” Bronson (née Buchinski, of Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania), the pockmarked lovelies on parade include Tom Atkins (Maniac Cop, Pittsburgh), Robert Davi (Maniac Cop 2, Queens), and Robert Forster (Vigilante, Rochester).
Bronx boy William Lustig is the most represented director here, with screenings of his first two Maniac Cop films and 1983’s Vigilante (worth noting: All contain an instance of nude prison-shower brawling). With its stolid, stupid, invincible leading monster, the Maniac Cop saga leaves me cold—though the second installment gets a boost from the addition of Leo Rossi as a Mansonesque motormouth. Vigilante is the pick of Lustig’s litter, a blue-collar Death Wish as grimy as the BQE’s belly, offering a North Brooklyn sightseeing tour that includes views of Newtown Creek, a car chase on McGuinness Boulevard, and a drug-dealer rundown through the abandoned hulk of the McCarren Park Pool. Community organizer/badass Fred Williamson, all indignant testosterone, helps pal Forster alchemize his victim’s grief into rage. (These films always bypass real racial divides—the demographic balance of “bad guys” is a carefully stacked house of cards—for the segregation of law and chaos). Surprising pathos comes in the terrible authenticity of Forster’s metamorphosis, as stoicism caves into the abyss.
No homage to NYC squalor would be complete without a word from Abel Ferrera, the lapsed Catholic who found a teeming symbolic inferno in the city of his youth. His Ms. 45 represents a period in the ’80s when thrillers were overtly playing with militant Take Back the Night invective (see also: Tightrope, Cop). The attraction was obvious: Both Andrea Dworkin and exploitation filmmakers basically agreed that sex was warfare.
Meek, mute seamstress Thana (sumptuously expressive Zoë Tamerlis) loses faith in guys after getting raped twice in one day, so she forms a one-woman Society for Cutting Up Men. Ferrara takes the “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” maxim at face value—what follows is a flip through an ultraviolent fashion spread, as our heroine gets done up nightly (stiletto boots, leather pants, full black cloak) to go gunning after pimps, sheiks, catcallers, and any other swinging dick. The death-disco climax is a lulu.
Ferrara’s since exiled himself to Rome. Tamerlis died young. Most of the other actors here are still gigging (Willie Colón, the salsa musician playing a blade-happy sociopath in Vigilante, is a friend of the Bloomberg administration), and privileged youth convene in McCarren Pool. As much as in the repetitive cataracts of death, the pleasures here are in visiting a bygone city—or at least a refraction of that city—that’s since disappeared. Or at least been swept to the outer-outer boroughs.