Hollywood made a lot of blue collar movies in the 1970s. I’m talking about films that extoll the virtues of the working man and the never-ending series of obstacles that the working class face. On one end of the spectrum, you have “hick flicks,” essentially exploitation movies set in the Deep South or in some rural location where country people rise up against some obstacle. Hallmarks of this type of movie are hot rods and muscle cars, country music, trucker hats, and at least one person yelling “Yee dawgie.” On the other end of the spectrum, you have more polished, refined studio pictures that have elements of the hick flick, but seem to be about more than rebellion and stickin’ it to the man. I’d place Vigilante Force in this latter category. While it does have a lot of the elements associated with exploitation, it comes off as more of a contemporary western.
Vigilante Force stars Jan-Michael Vincent (White Line Fever and TV’s Airwolf) as a hard-working single father. His wife died in childbirth, and he’s doing his best to provide for himself and his daughter in the small oil town of Elk Hills, California. The problem is that the oil has brought it a lot of undesirable people who are hoping to strike it rich, and Elk Hills has become a modern day Tombstone, filled with violence in the streets and saloon fights where people end up dead. Jan-Michael Vincent (who I’ll reference as JMV from this point forward) goes to his estranged brother, played by Kris Kristofferson (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, the Blade movies) to enlist his aid in cleaning up the town. Kristofferson is a Vietnam veteran with a gruff demeanor and a history of getting his hands dirty, so JMV believes he has what it takes to get some results. Kris Kristofferson is more than happy to oblige, and he brings along a bunch of his rowdy friends to help him out.
The Breakfast Club, Die Hard), David Doyle (Bosley from the Charlie’s Angels TV show), and a bevy of older character actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood who were once headliners in westerns, adventure films, and comedies of the forties and fifties. Loni Anderson and Dick Miller appear briefly, uncredited.
So let’s get into it. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for this kind of movie. In fact, I’ve yet to meet one that I didn’t like. Part of the reason I wanted to write about the movies of 1976 is because I’m just a really big fan of this particular time and place, and you can tell that’s true because I think I’ve used the words “time and place” in each piece I’ve written during this series. Seriously, though, there’s something about 1976 that I think it just magical, and it’s here in this movie too. Consider the setting for this film, which is Elk Hills, California. That’s north of Los Angeles and a little west of Bakersfield. Bakersfield was the region that was responsible for the whole “honky tonk” movement in country music in the late sixties and early seventies. Country music had become syrupy and overproduced, and a raw sound started to emerge in Bakersfield, California that was the polar opposite. Guys like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens became associated with “the Bakersfield sound,” and this movie takes place in that same area not that long after it became synonymous with rowdy, earthy people who were giving country back to the workin’ man. See? Time and place.
In Vigilante Force, Kristofferson was somewhere in the neighborhood of forty, but he looks like he’d already lived two lifetimes. His face is sun-weathered and craggy, but there’s a toughness about him that’s perfect for this role. He can switch between anti-establishment maverick to cold-hearted murderer in the bat of an eye. In fact, when I compare performances, there’s something about Patrick Swayze’s turn in Point Break (the REAL one, not the remake) that feels similar. There’s a charisma there in the eyes, but also a danger. Like a sad, caged animal. Loneliness, maybe?
Bernadette Peters gives a performance that’s completely different from the one she delivered in Silent Movie, also from 1976. In that movie, she’s all va-va-voom and exaggerated sex appeal. In this movie, she’s subdued, defeated, and not at all sure where she’s going in life. When she shacks up with Kristofferson, she thinks she’s found a temporary respite, but soon that becomes dangerous and she’s almost too tired to even be afraid. It’s a really great, subtle turn. If she wasn’t so distinct in her appearance, you’d wonder if it was the same person.
The tone can be off-putting, but I actually like what Armitage does here. I know that tonal whiplash is probably not something a filmmaker should be praised for, but I dig the unique style and storytelling. It’s called the “Armitage all up in yo’ FACE” method. I’ll also add that he directs the heck out of the climax. Someone must have told him to “go big or go home” because the finale of this movie is INSANE. I’m taking machine guns, hand grenades, and a BAZOOKA. Seriously. I think someone’s a fan of The Wild Bunch!
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!