Thursday, November 3, 2011

Vigilante Force (1976) review


Jan Michael Vincent (Ben Arnold), Kris Kristofferson (Aaron Arnold), Victoria Principal (Linda Christopher), Bernadette Peters (Little Dee), Andrew Stevens (Paul Sinton)

Directed by George Armitage

"You wanna play cowboys and Indians, do it out in the pasture. Nobody's takin' over this town."--Aaron Arnold

The Short Version: VIGILANTE FORCE is the 70s equivalent of ROAD HOUSE (1989). It's a rough n' rowdy cinematic southern rock song and like those anthemic, loud guitar licks, it's the type of movie you don't see anymore. The ultimate testosterone fueled man's movie, this remake of BUCKTOWN (1975) amounts to a modern day western filled with bar brawls, street fights, shoot outs and massive explosions. Filled with mindless violence and plenty of tough guy dialog and posing, both male and female viewers get lots of eye candy in this lovingly braindead 70s obscurity that champions its drive in heritage by shoving it in your face with one hand and brandishing a rifle in the other.

A huge financial boom in the oil fields of Elk Hills, a small California town, causes a dangerous influx of violence, street brawls and all around uncouth behavior when a rowdy bunch of rednecks and criminal elements get their hands greasy from all the overflowing oil. The police are unable to contain the problem so outside assistance is called for. Ben Arnold puts a call out for help from his troubled Vietnam vet brother, Aaron. Eventually getting the town in order with the help of some additional hired hands, it becomes apparent that Aaron has plans of his own for the tiny hamlet. Taking over as sheriff and pressuring the towns businesses for protection money, Aaron and his goon squad ultimately prove far more dangerous than the brawls and bar fights ever were. Having fought over the affection of a woman years before, tension between the two brothers grows. Ben forms a Vigilante Force of his own and plans to go to war with his insane brother to take back the town.

The director of PRIVATE DUTY NURSES (1971) and HIT MAN (1972) directs arguably his most substantially satisfying movie despite it being wholly unbelievable. Armitage also wrote the script (what little there is) in what is an even more explosive, rough and tumble version of the blaxploitation classic, BUCKTOWN (1975) starring Fred Williamson and Pam Grier. But where that film was about a black man against a town run by racist pigs, the folks that populate the landscape seen in VIGILANTE FORCE are generally unruly due to a rich oil vein that brings with it a lot of dissension and disruption within the town. In BUCKTOWN, the main character (played by Williamson) brings some of his big city boys down south to help him clean up the trash. When the garbage has finally been taken out, the suit and tie gangsters decide to stick around and ultimately prove to be a bigger threat than the bigoted civic defenders. Williamson then must fight back against his friends to take back the town.

In VIGILANTE FORCE, the arc of the outside force becoming an even deadlier obstacle is magnified with minor details altered from the previous years blaxploitation favorite. The two main characters are made brothers and the script struggles to make something of the conflict the two have endured over the years especially where women were involved. Armitage makes a minor effort, but the pathos is lost among the plethora of man sweat and jingoistic bravado. There's also a brief flirtation with a political subtext as well as the effects of 'Nam on those who came home, but these end up as incidental details amidst the action and chest beating. Upon closer inspection, the films penchant for lawlessness is borrowed heavily from the western template. Armitage simply transplants the traditional sagebrush saga to a modern setting. The bars are the saloons; the cars and trucks act as wagons and horses; the symbol of the law changes hands by a late night gun duel inside a barn and the amazing, stunt filled climax cuts loose like the OK Corral on steroids. The film does slow down momentarily during the mid section to establish plot points glossed over during the first half.

The exposition doesn't wear out its welcome as it isn't long before the violence and brutality takes center stage once more. Even with what little characterization that manages to seep in, the central characters are about as amoral and unapologetic as they come. While the entire movie takes on the persona of a wild west oater set during the wrong time period, the actions and reactions of some of the main characters is astonishingly cold and ineffectual considering the sadistic behavior perpetrated on some of the cast members. VIGILANTE FORCE is truly a man's world and the women are just pawns and play things to be dominated, abused and killed if they get out of line or interfere. Yes, in addition to a high level of testosterone ready to erupt in a volcanic miasma of twisted metal and flying bullets, there's also an ugly air of misogyny hovering over the film like a corrosive cloud of causticity.

When the "Earp's" and "Clanton's" battle it out at the end, the war is waged conveniently on what appears to be the outskirts of some post apocalyptic ghost town. This totally out of control and 'all bets are off' conclusion sees the old 40 Acres backlot more or less destroyed from bazooka blasts and machine gun fire that literally jettisons stunt men out of building windows. Nostalgic fans may recognize some of these buildings and constructs from old television shows that played home to such characters as Colonel Klink and sheriff Andy Taylor. Movies like SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975) and ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE SS (1974) were also shot on those grounds.

Kris Kristofferson does more posing than emoting in what amounts to him more or less playing himself; at least there's very little difference from his role here and some of his other movies. He acted in a similar capacity in CONVOY (1978) playing another 'Hairy Man' type role in a plot that borrows elements from both the wildly successful SMOKEY & THE BANDIT (1977) and the 'Danger In Dixie' sub genre--a curious style of film that includes the ample 'Moonshine' movies that prospered throughout the decade. Kristofferson does little in the acting department here, but he has presence and some of his actions are cold blooded to say the least. During the no-holds-barred, free-for-all finale, Kristofferson and his cronies are plotting a major bank heist while masquerading as a group of band players during a town parade!

Jan Michael Vincent was a major rising star during the 1970s and was poised to be the next big action star alongside such greats as Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood. He co-starred with Bronson in the original THE MECHANIC in 1972 and took the lead in the high octane trucker version of WALKING TALL (1973) in WHITE LINE FEVER (1975), a film that featured L.Q. Jones as the main heavy. The futuristic action of DAMNATION ALLEY (1977) soon followed as well as another co-starring role alongside Burt Reynolds in the action comedy HOOPER in 1978. Vincent had lots of charisma and was a slight more adept at line delivery than Kristofferson. He then went on to a successful three season run on the action series AIRWOLF (1984-1987) before an admission to drug and alcohol abuse seemingly derailed his once promising career.

Producer Gene Corman was behind this which speaks volumes about what type of film you can expect from one of the Corman brothers who produced movies like ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES (1959), the must see THE INTRUDER (1962), YOU CAN'T WIN'EM ALL (1971) with Bronson and Tony Curtis, THE SLAMS (1973), I ESCAPED DEVIL'S ISLAND (1973) and the utterly bizarre DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975). This Corman produced effort is a perfect time capsule that defined the essence of the explosive 70s drive in feature. There's a distinct ambiance and ferociousness to those vintage examples of blood dripping masculinity that survives the ages to remind us there was a time when action cinema didn't need a hundred million dollars to grab your attention. All that was required was a lot of action, brutality, gun battles and excessive amounts of things blowing up for no reason at all. Exploitation and action pictures of the 1970s defined gratuitousness and VIGILANTE FORCE bathes in it. Rebellious, raucous and raw, Armitage's movie will likely stir the ire of high-minded female viewers, but it's movies like this the Spike Channel was made for.
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