Along with the gangster, the movie vigilante might be the most abused cinema archetype of all time. Not that there aren’t, say, more bad films about alien invasions or possessed teenage girls or serial killers, but those movies have far too many comedic overtones (intentional or not) to give offense.
However, there’s plenty to be offended by in the vigilante genre — the latest addition to which is Jodie Foster’s new film “The Brave One.” We can start with the ridiculous, exploitive violence, the misogynistic plots (far too often the storyline revolves around rape — and brutal quasi-realistic rape scenes) and the corny one-liners that find their way into our political discourse (remember President Reagan telling Democrats to “Go ahead, make my day” a la Dirty Harry?).
Still, there’s nothing new about vigilantes. What’s Dirty Harry but John Wayne with a bigger gun and an attitude? Many of these films aren’t great, I’ll grant you that, but there are a few diamonds among this otherwise trashy genre.
“Taxi Driver” (1976)Ah, New York in the 1970s… what a dump! The trash, the graffiti, the muggers, the urban alienation! Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece is a multi-layered portrait of a disturbed loner in the post-revolution days of the 1960s when all that love and peace turned into despair and hopelessness. Travis Bickle (played so beautifully by Robert De Niro, back when he still cared) is this close to being a serial killer or an assassin. Instead, he becomes that crazed lone gunman that we often read about (Lee Harvey Oswald, Columbine, Virginia Tech, etc.) and goes on a killing rampage, taking out bad guys like Harvey Keitel. Yet, unlike his real-life counterparts, we somehow feel sympathetic for him in the end.
“Dirty Harry” (1971)The massive success of this film turned the vigilante genre into box-office gold (something that I’ve always thought Eastwood was secretly embarrassed by) and inspired too many bad films to count, but “Dirty Harry” is actually a very good film. It’s a stinging portrait of urban despair in America circa the 1970s (although its seriousness is pretty well hidden). The plot — like any good Western or samurai flick — is simple: a serial killer is on the loose and one cop will do anything to stop him. And when he does, we love him for it. Notable aside: “Dirty Harry” was originally written for Frank Sinatra. Can you picture Ol’ Blue Eyes delivering Dirty Harry’s iconic lines like “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya punk?” — not quite the same, is it?
“Magnum Force” (1973)Perhaps the ultimate vigilante film: Dirty Harry takes on a gang of motorcycle vigilantes. Here’s the twist: the gang is comprised of cops who are disillusioned with the criminal justice system. They like Dirty Harry and his .357 Magnum, but they think he doesn’t go far enough. So they go around killing mobsters and assorted criminals who, for one reason or another, beat the rap. But this time Detective Callahan is fighting for the system and against complete lawlessness. The second in the “Dirty Harry” series, it was originally meant to answer critics who thought the first film glorified violence. “Dirty Harry” glorifying violence? What were they thinking?
“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999)This underrated tragi-comedy by Jim Jarmusch is the closest any film has come to understanding the similarity between the gangster (who kills for profit) and the samurai (who kills for honor). Inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s spectacular “Le Samouraï” (see below), this film mixes the highbrow artistry of Melville’s masterpiece with Jarmusch’s particular brand of surreal fun. Forest Whitaker plays a mob hit man who lives his life by the samurai code; when he betrayed by his boss’ boss, he realizes he must take them all out. In between there are violent cartoons, rapping mobsters, a soundtrack by RZA, and a mysterious black dog that barks at Whitaker’s character, seemingly telling him what to do (a la “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz, who said a neighbor’s dog told him to kill). One of Jarmusch’s best.
“Le Samouraï” (1967)This little seen gem by French New Wave auteur Jean-Pierre Melville about a meditative killer named Costello (played by Alain Delon) who kills without emotion. Why? Because it’s his job. A quote from “The Book of Bushido” appears on the screen at the start of the film and sets its tone: “There is no solitude greater than the samurai’s, unless it be that of the tiger in the jungle” (Jarmusch deploys the same Eastern thought-quoting technique in “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”). A huge influence on John Woo’s work, “Le Samouraï” is a brilliant, highbrow twist on a B-movie fave: the silent hit man. If only all shoot ’em up films were half as good as this.
“Foxy Brown” (1974) and “Coffy” (1973)
If there’s one kind of vigilante I never get enough of, it’s Pam Grier. In these two early ’70s blaxploitation films, she plays one tough lady who avenges all manner of crimes committed against her loved ones. She beats the crap out of women and blows the heads off racist white men. And she uses any means available, whether it’s a loaded pistol or her own earthy beauty. As one character says of Foxy Brown, “she’s a whole lotta woman.” Ain’t that the cold truth.
“Death Wish” (1974)This is the worst kind of film imaginable: graphic, exploitative violence — which, includes, a brutal scene where a mother is beaten to death and her daughter raped. But it’s Charles Bronson’s wife and daughter, so he goes on a massive killing spree blowing away every mugger and thug he gets his hands on. And, of course, you cheer when as he kills them all. But after watching this film — which inexplicably used to be on TV on Sunday afternoons like it was “Sesame Street” — you just feel dirty and in desperate need of a bath.
“Ms. 45” (1981)It doesn’t get much worse than 1981’s “Ms. 45” (directed by Abel Ferrara). A cheap C-film about a shy and mute seamstress (Zoë Lund) who goes on a rampage after she gets raped — not once but twice — on the same night. Naturally she gets a .45 (remember the .44 was already taken by real-life serial killer Son of Sam) and kills everything in her path. At one point she’s got to pose as a nun to blow someone away. Now a nun with a gun — that’s original.