One of my favorite ’70s drive-in flicks is the violent oddity Vigilante Force (1976), starring Jan-Michael Vincent as a redneck who recruits his Vietnam-vet brother, played by Kris Kristofferson, to clean up a town that’s become infested by unruly newcomers. Alas, the cure is worse than the disease, because Kristofferson’s character and his hired guns seize control of the town, forcing a showdown with Vincent’s character. Anyway, go figure there’s a blaxploitation movie with virtually the same plot. Released more than a year before Vigilante Force, the far less satisfying Bucktown stars Fred Williamson as a tough guy named Duke Johnson. When the story begins, Duke returns to his Southern hometown, which is nicknamed “Bucktown” by racist white authorities because of the municipality’s large concentration of black citizens, in order to attend his brother’s funeral. Duke quickly learns that his brother, who owned a nightclub catering to black customers, was murdered, and that cops under the supervision of Chief Patterson (Art Lund) mercilessly squeeze African-American business owners for protection money. Determined to set things right, Duke reopens his brother’s club and summons his badass buddy Roy (Thalmus Rasulala) from Chicago with a request to “bring muscle.” Together, Duke, Roy, and Roy’s hired guns topple Chief Patterson’s operation, but then Roy decides to establish himself as the new underworld king of Bucktown.
Naturally, even though Duke spendt the first half of the movie proclaiming his intention to leave Bucktown after defeating Chief Patterson, Duke decides to stay and fight Roy. Part of Duke’s motivation, of course, is a burgeoning romance with local beauty Aretha, played by the va-va-voom Queen of Blaxploitation herself, Pam Grier.
As written by Bob Ellison and directed by the perpetually disappointing Arthur Marks, Bucktown is a compendium of missed opportunities. The characterizations are paper-thin, the possibilities of defining a community by illustrating the vibe at Duke’s nightclub are never exploited, and the logic problems created by open warfare in the streets of an American city are ignored. As a result, the vibrant actors populating the cast are left to flounder while trying to energize lifeless material. Williamson’s at his best, focusing on righteous indignation and suppressing his tendency toward megalomaniacal strutting, but every single thing he does is a cliché. Rasulala fares slightly better, since his character gets to arc from noble to nefarious, but it says a lot that the climax of his performance involves taking a brutal kick to the groin. Grier is almost completely wasted, since she’s relegated to showing off her astonishing body and watching the main action from the sidelines. Making a story this colorful boring required considerable effort, but Marks and his team somehow managed that dubious accomplishment.