Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Vigilante Force (1976)

          Way before making the ’90s cult faves Grosse Pointe Blank and Miami Blues, George Armitage wrote and directed this odd exploitation flick, which boasts an eclectic cast, an insane storyline, and weird flourishes like happy banjo music accompanying scenes of bloody mayhem. Vigilante Force is so disconnected from recognizable reality that it’s like a drive-in flick viewed through the prism of an irreverent absurdist. And, yes, that’s a compliment: Vigilante Force is disorganized, illogical, and strange, but it’s also compulsively watchable.
          The outrageous story takes place in a small California oil town called Elk Hills, which has been overrun by itinerant workers. Blissfully eschewing restraint, Armitage depicts the interlopers as hordes of brawling rednecks; these faceless savages seem to be controlled by sociopathic groupthink. In the first 10 minutes alone, criminals trash a saloon, murder cops in broad daylight, and literally shoot a car to death. Given the many whimsical touches that follow, one can only imagine that Armitage envisioned his film’s opening act as a spoof of other movies about random violence, but then again, his storytelling is so capricious throughout Vigilante Force it’s hard to parse narrative intention.
          Anyway, the leading moral force in Elk Hills is Ben Arnold (Jan-Michael Vincent), a salt-of-the-earth widower who wants to protect the small town where he lives with his young daughter. At the urging of his neighbors, Ben tracks down his wayward Vietnam-vet brother Aaron (Kris Kristofferson), and then hires Aaron to form a peacekeeping militia. Initially, the scheme works, because Aaron and his rough-and-tumble buddies crack down on street crime. However, it soon becomes apparent that Aaron is even more dangerous than the thugs he was recruited to fight. Enlisting secret operatives to shake down local business owners and gleefully using murder to intimidate opponents, Aaron quickly gets Elk Hills under his militaristic thumb. Among other things, Aaron’s rampage features some of the most blasé murders ever shown in movies; the comic-book universe Armitage creates is almost entirely devoid of visible emotional consequences, a bizarre tonal choice accentuated by across-the-board understated performances.
          While all this is going on, the movie tracks Ben’s romance with a saintly schoolteacher (Victoria Principal) and Aaron’s thorny involvement with a cynical barroom singer (Bernadette Peters). While future Dallas star Principal is mostly relegated to stand-by-her-man ornamentation, Peters gets to show off her comedy chops through sly running gags. Plus, both women are blazingly sexy, so even though Vigilante Force is chaste by exploitation-movie standards, there’s plenty of eye candy—and since Kristofferson spends about half the movie shirtless, Armitage ensures there’s something for everyone to ogle. Furthermore, the supporting cast features several familiar faces, including Charlie’s Angels sidekick David Doyle, Breakfast Club villain Paul Gleason, and, in tiny roles, WKRP in Cincinnati bombshell Loni Anderson and B-movie icon Dick Miller.
          After meandering through a confusing but entertaining second act, Vigilante Force sticks the landing with an incredibly colorful finale: Aaron’s crew masquerades as a marching band in order to rob the Elk Hills bank, and Ben forms a militia of his own comprising local geezers and youths. Thus, the climax features Kristofferson blasting away with an M-16 while dressed in a cherry-red marching-band outfit and standing atop a giant oil tank. From its surreal opening to its even more surreal denouement, Vigilante Force maintains a breakneck pace that precludes questions about the nutty narrative until it’s all over. As a result, Vigilante Force is among the most uniquely entertaining schlock movies of its era. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

Vigilante Force: FREAKY

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