Saturday, November 12, 2016

In short: Vigilante Force (1976)

Ever since the oil fields of South Californian Elk Mills have been reopened on account of the energy crisis, the small town’s standard of living has sunk rapidly despite money flowing in again. Gambling, prostitution and cases of bringing guns to a barroom brawl run rampant, and the more anarchic elements around don’t bring their guns only to the bar anymore.

The good people of the town decide they need some tougher law enforcement, so they send out straight-laced tractor mechanic and salesman Ben Arnold (Jan-Michael Vincent), to bring the town’s black sheep, his somewhat estranged brother, Vietnam veteran Aaron (Kris Kristofferson) back, so they can put him in a police uniform. Aaron agrees to the proposition and also brings in a bunch of friends – ex-cops or ex-soldiers all – for a bit of mercenary law enforcement.

At first, Aaron’s unconventional policing methods bring good results, but once the town is cleaned up, he brings in his own gambling, prostitution and protection rackets, killing whoever gets in his way. Obviously, this is the sort of thing only all-out war brother against brother will solve in the end.

The Gene Corman produced Vigilante Force certainly isn’t the high point in director George Armitage’s small but fine filmography. It’s a bit flabbier around the narrative middle than it strictly needs to be, and some of Armitage’s usual sly and sarcastic comments on the state of the USA feel more like time-filling digressions than actual parts of the narrative. I also think that Armitage’s script underplays the initial problems that lead to the brothers’ estrangement too much, so that the film loses quite a bit of potential emotional tension.

Vincent is terribly stiff as the Good Brother, and Kristofferson certainly has his patented charisma but lacks the technique to give his character the extra-dimension the script doesn’t provide either.

There is still a lot to like about Vigilante Force: while the Armitageisms aren’t organic, they are still very amusing; the director is also very good at turning the town into something that feels like an actual place with some broad yet effective brush strokes. There are also some thoughts about the way class works in the US Armitage’s later films will develop further, and an eye for a country blue collar aesthetic.

Last but not least, while much of the film’s action isn’t spectacular (but still effective), the grand finale pulls out all stops, dressing the participants into some seriously absurd costumes (if you ever wanted to see Kristofferson in a red marching band outfit taking part in a shoot-out, this is gonna be your day) and letting things explode with a vengeance. At this point, things border at the absurd yet never quite teeter into that particular abyss. There’s worse things to say about a film than that it really knows how to finish.

No comments: