Release Date(s)1978 (September 8, 2015)
Studio(s)United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
George Armitage is one of the great mavericks of the American cinema, a writer-director of wit, energy, and style whose work deserves to be better known. After an apprenticeship with Roger Corman in the early 1970s that led to his directorial debut, Private Duty Nurses, Armitage wrote and directed a terrific Blaxploitation riff on Get Carter (Hit Man) and the equally brilliant action flick Vigilante Force before more or less disappearing from American screens for fourteen years – only to reemerge with 1990’s Miami Blues, Armitage’s masterpiece and a film that beat Tarantino at his own game two years before that director even started to play. After his reemergence, Armitage applied his unique cocktail of satire and violence to the entertaining John Cusack vehicle Grosse Pointe Blank and the Elmore Leonard adaptation The Big Bounce…and then he disappeared from American screens again for eleven years and counting.
Every one of Armitage’s directorial efforts is worthy of reexamination thanks to the unique blend of intellect and brute force that characterizes them all – like Sam Fuller, he’s a poet and a brawler at the same time, and the way that he merges social and political observations with pulpy genre pleasures is endlessly rewarding. Vigilante Force, newly available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, is a perfect place to begin studying and enjoying Armitage’s sensibility; literally explosive in its energy (there’s more action and violence in the opening credit sequence than some directors can cram into an entire film), it’s also a somewhat unsettling picture of post-Vietnam America and a darkly funny portrait of a psychopath – a motif that returns in Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank. The psychopath in Vigilante Force is Aaron Arnold (Kris Kristofferson), a Vietnam vet whose brother Ben (Jan-Michael Vincent) calls on him for help when the small town Ben lives in is overrun by violence. Ben and his neighbors get more than they bargained for when they ask Aaron to clean up the town, and instead he forms a gang that’s even worse than the people he was brought in to eradicate.
Eventually, Ben and his friends have to take up arms against Aaron in a climax that represents Armitage at his most kinetic and inventive – and which includes a stunt that Tarantino has called his all-time favorite. The whole movie is filled with dynamic action sequences, from shoot-outs to car chases to bar fights, and Armitage’s clear but complicated staging is a marvel to behold (particularly when one realizes that he made the movie on a $1 million budget). Yet he’s just as good in the quiet scenes; the cast includes an abundance of reliable character actors, from Brad Dexter to Armitage favorite Paul Gleason, as well as pair of strong leading ladies (Victoria Principal and Bernadette Peters) and they all have wonderful character-based moments peppered amidst the carnage. The movie is loads of fun, but it also has an underlying melancholy that’s deeply affecting; the ghost of Vietnam hangs over the whole affair, and the idea that the small town itself is a kind of Vietnam, with Kristofferson once again part of an occupying force, is a rich and provocative one.
The Blu-ray transfer is solid overall, with sharp detail, vibrant colors, and a source print that is virtually flawless; some slight inconsistencies in terms of grain and contrast keep it from an A rating, but it’s generally a strong presentation. The same goes for the audio, though the DTS-HD 2.0 mix reveals slight distortion in the louder action sequences. Aside from a trio of theatrical trailers (for Vigilante Force, Convoy, and Defiance), there’s only one extra feature, but it’s a good one: a commentary track in which filmmaker Elijah Drenner (director of That Guy Dick Miller) interviews Armitage. Given what a mysterious, elusive figure Armitage has been for much of his career, the chance to hear him speak is a delight – particularly since he’s as good a verbal storyteller as he is a visual one.
- Jim Hemphill