Release Date(s)1980 (September 8, 2015)
Studio(s)American International Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: N/A
The recent boom in companies like Shout! Factory, Kino Lorber, and Olive Films licensing studio content has served the formerly overlooked action director John Flynn quite well. The past few years have seen beautiful Blu-ray editions of Flynn’s scorching revenge film Rolling Thunder and his slyly funny thriller Best Seller, and now Kino Lorber has put out an excellent – though no-frills – disc of one of the director’s lesser known films, the 1980 AIP Death Wish knockoff Defiance. (Flynn’s best picture, the riveting crime flick The Outfit is also now available from Warner Archive and worth seeking out.) While Defiance is minor Flynn – he’s saddled with a sluggish, formulaic story and a sluggish lead actor in the form of a bored looking Jan-Michael Vincent – it’s still a fascinating time capsule, and represents interesting early work from then novice producer Jerry Bruckheimer and cinematographer Ric Waite, who would go on to shoot Walter Hill’s 48HRS just a couple years later.
The story of Defiance is straight out of the Death Wish playbook, though, peculiarly enough, it shares more in common with the Death Wish sequels that Cannon Films would bang out throughout the 1980s than it does with the original. Vincent plays Tommy, a merchant marine killing time in a tough New York neighborhood while he waits for a new ship. While there he befriends an assortment of locals, including an aging shopkeeper (Art Carney), a pretty neighbor (Theresa Saldana), and a young kid (Fernando Lopez). He also becomes aware of a street gang that terrorizes everyone in the area, and though he tries to keep to himself, he’s eventually drawn into the conflict and helps his neighbors rise up against the violent hoods. It’s pretty standard vigilante stuff, and unfortunately Flynn never quite gets the blood flowing; the whole thing moves along at a slow, even pace and lacks the ruthlessly manipulative bloodlust of the Death Wish and Walking Tall movies. (I mean “ruthlessly manipulative bloodlust” as a compliment, incidentally.)
Yet the movie does have an undeniable appeal as a snapshot of early 1980s New York, with terrific location cinematography by Waite and a nightmarish tone that places it right in line with other films of the era like The Warriors, Maniac, Q: The Winged Serpent and Escape From New York. The New York of 1980s cinema seems to have had a split personality between the romantic urban gloss of Woody Allen and Peter Bogdanovich (They All Laughed) and the crime-ridden hellscapes of Scorsese, Larry Cohen, and William Lustig. Defiance fits right in with the latter, and is made highly watchable by its parade of distinctive character actors; Vincent’s neighbors include Danny Aiello, Frank Pesce, and even a young Tony Sirico (Paulie on The Sopranos) and other familiar New York faces, and it’s a lot of fun watching them riff. The movie has a lot more polish and craft than it ought to, thanks not only to these pros but to Flynn’s expert staging of action; the action itself doesn’t have much of a build-up, but the director (who got his start as a second-unit man on things like The Great Escape) knows how to stage and edit it for maximum visual impact.
The visuals are well presented on Kino Lorber’s surprisingly pristine transfer, which captures Waite’s sharp sense of contrast and handles the shadow detail in his night exteriors well. The stereo mix is strong as well, though the music seems a bit overpowering compared to everything else – maybe this was the way the original film was mixed, but either way you’ll want to keep the remote close by to keep from blowing your neighbors out of their homes whenever one of the picture’s many original songs starts blasting. In terms of extras this is a bare-bones affair, with only a pair of theatrical trailers – one for Defiance and one for another, far superior Jan-Michael Vincent vehicle, Vigilante Force – to complete the package. Ultimately, Defiance is far from essential viewing, but it’s an intriguing early 80s footnote given a respectful treatment on Blu-ray.
- Jim Hemphill