Thursday 9 February 2017

Vigilante Force [1976]

VIGILANTE FORCE is an American action thriller that was written and directed by George Armitage and originally released in September 1976 by United Artists.  It stars Kris Kristofferson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Victoria Principal and Bernadette Peters.  After oil is found in a small Californian town it finds itself overrun by hordes of itinerant workers, hell bent on raucous mayhem on their days off.  With the small police department unable to maintain order, they call in a Vietnam veteran to dispense justice with no questions asked.

This is another film that I have at last managed to tick of my personal ‘lost films’ list, that is to say films I have wanted to see for a long time but have simply been unable to find, much less see.  Various films have held the number one slot on this list, each being deleted every time I’m lucky enough to track one down.  For the longest time, the Bryan Adams of lost films, if you will, was Richard C. Sarafian’s LOLLY MADONNA XXX [1973] very much the BEN-HUR of hicksploitation.  Then it was Sidney J. Furie’s LITTLE FAUSS & BIG HALSY [1970], the world’s premier Robert Redford / bike-racing picture.  Going back further, to the time when I used to literally give my list to my parents so they could keep an eye out for NTSC tapes on their trips to the States.  Via that route I managed to see Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW [1973] and Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON [1975].  The latter is of course now widely available in multiple formats which goes to show not only how much easier it is to see films these days but also how big important films can become lost too.

It has just struck me that all of the films mentioned above, including the subject of this piece, are from the early-mid 1970s.  And to them you could add Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE [1975] and Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE [1971].  Is this because my particular taste is for cinema from that period?  I would say that my taste in films knows no bounds so it can’t be that.  So is there something about that period, from a legal or commercial perspective, that meant it was easier for for films to fall into distribution / exhibition limbo?  Unfortunately my knowledge of that aspect of the film business is non-existent so the answer will have to wait for another day, if it ever comes.

Like many of the other films on my ‘lost’ list, VIGILANTE FORCE was something of a disappointment; because of the prolonged wait to get to see them, these films have unreasonable expectation piled on to them so perhaps that disappointment is inevitable.  More than thatm settling down to watch virtually any film for the first time there’s always that little feeling inside, the hope that it’ll turn out to be a classic - even more so if it has been one you’ve waited patiently for.  So while Armitage’s film certainly didn’t turn out to be one of those hoped-for classics, and while it wasn’t really worth the wait and expectation, it is a perfectly serviceable action thriller which amid the punch ups and explosions, manages to make one or two points about right-wing views and taking the law into your own hands.

Aaron (L) and Ben Arnold

Kristofferson and Vincent plays brothers (Aaron and Ben, respectively), the former a grizzled Vietnam veteran who might well have a screw loose; the latter a clean cut, hard-working blue collar kinda guy with a steady girlfriend and a personable demeanour.  Aaron is the guy upon whom Ben is asked to prevail to put a stop to the crime spree that the local oil boom has brought about.  I get that itinerant workers may bring some problems but I didn’t quite buy that they turned the small town into a hellhole, to the extent that it required the remedial measures adopted in pretty swift order by the town burghers.

Aaron and his good time girlfriend Little Dee (Bernadette Peters) before the **** hits the fan

Be that as it may, Aaron agrees to help and brings a lot of his war buddies with him.  Soon he is dispensing justice, Buford Pusser-style, via a pick-axe handle or whatever other blunt instrument he can get his hands on, which usually means his, er, hands.  Aaron pretty soon has the town licked into shape and his thoughts turn to how he might exploit the situation by establishing himself as the main man.  Only his brother Ben, and one or two wise old heads, can see what Aaron is up to and they resolve to put a stop to it.

In other words, having failed to adequately police their own town, the council make an ill-judged lurch to the right in circumventing the proper channels and bringing in some violent scumbags to restore law and order.  When they’ve done that, the violent scumbags start wreaking their own havoc, as is in the nature of violent scumbags so to do.  At that point, said council realise they’ve gone too far down a rocky road and everything goes tits up.  By way of context, I watched VIGILANTE FORCE not long after the inaugration of President Trump in the USA.  I get that he is the protest candidate, the only option remaining to those who feel so disenfranchised and disillusioned with mainstream politicians.  I get that, I really do.  But, like hiring a mentally-unstable and belligerent man to keep the peace, it represents something of a nuclear option and, as far as I can tell, is likely to end in tears.  This film isn’t a political allegory of course and it isn’t even a blackly comic satire.  But it is a useful reminder that, unlike say in DEATH WISH [1974], resorting to drastic measures to resolve problems best left to the authorities – however imperfect those authorities might be – generally ends in carnage.

Kris Kristofferson as Aaron Arnold

The time when Kris Kristofferson could topline a movie is many many years past now but in his day he was one of the most popular entertainers around.  He had a wider range than most critics give him credit for and he had, at least early in his acting career, a knack for choosing interesting and quirky projects which in some cases had points to make about modern American society, as is the case here.  He is a man I greatly admire, not merely for his films, or even for his music, but because he is a man of great integrity who has managed to rise above the superficiality and general baseness that you might expect from someone who has been world famous for nearly 50 years.  If you don’t know much about his work, then I can recommend catching pretty much anything he made in the 1970s and, especially, HEAVEN’S GATE, made in 1980, which despite the received wisdom is one of the greatest westerns ever made and one of the very few to directly address the racism and bloodshed of early US history.

Jan-Michael Vincent as Ben Arnold

The time when Jan-Michael Vincent could actually get on to a movie screen, much less topline his own movie, is sadly long gone.  These days the poor fellow is beset by a multitude of health problems, some self-inflicted, some not and his acting career seems over.  To be honest, after some early promise – and one hit TV series in the 1980s – it was a pretty disappointing career which in quality terms was over long before the health issues began. 

A pre-DALLAS Victoria Principal as Ben's girlfriend Linda

Director George Armitage hasn’t made many films but they’re all worth seeing, especially the utterly brilliant GROSSE POINTE BLANK, made in 1997, which stars John Cusack as a hitman persuaded to attend his high school 10-year reunion.  “Ten years!”