The sad decline of Jan-Michael Vincent’s career was well underway when he made this humane but unremarkable urban-violence picture. Vincent does passable work as a dude who stumbles into a war between ghetto dwellers and the savage street gang terrorizing them, and Defiance boasts slick direction by John Flynn as well as appealing supporting turns by Danny Aiello, Art Carney, and Theresa Saldana. Yet the story is predictable, and the action quotient isn’t high enough to satisfy the target audience. Furthermore, because Vincent reportedly spent a fair amount of the production inebriated, Defiance captures the moment just before too many ho-hum movies and too much booze depleted his movie-star capital. A few years after making this picture, Vincent took a job playing second banana to a helicopter on the TV show Airwolf, and things got much, much worse from there.
In any event, Vincent plays Tommy, a seaman who temporarily loses his work license, forcing him to linger in New York City. He takes a tenement apartment and befriends neighbors including Abe (Carney), Carmine (Aiello), and Marsha (Saldana). These folks live in fear of the Souls, a violent gang led by Angel (Rudy Ramos). The Souls prey upon Tommy’s friends, but he says it’s not his problem until the villains cross a line, triggering Tommy’s violent intervention.
Rare is the movie that deserves criticism for offering too much character development, but the first hour of Defiance meanders through one pleasant getting-t0-know-you scene after another, so it takes forever to get to the action. Had the picture gone deeper, for instance rendering Angel as a multidimensional character, this intimate approach might have worked. Alas, Defiance exists somewhere between the superficiality of a good B-movie and the substance of a proper dramatic film. Nonetheless, it’s a skillfully made project that benefits from extensive location photography, and Vincent conveys winning vulnerability as well as formidable physicality. He’s more of a presence than a performer here, but he wasn’t so far gone that his gifts had completely left him.