[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
If George Armitage has any consciousness of the existence of film critics and their predilection for creating cult figures, he’s doubtlessly waiting for some little-magazine commentator who hasn’t turned over a rock lately to hail him as an “American primitive.” His credentials? A storyline so incredible a generous soul might mistake it for zany. Characters that beg to be taken at face value as stereotypes but don’t make sense even that way. Comic-strip pretensions toward social consciousness. A shooting style so crude and undisciplined it must express a boundless dynamism (incompetence is unthinkable). You’ve-got-to-be-kidding images like the hero’s daughter, dressed in Uncle Sam costume, running to embrace Daddy after the successful conclusion of the final purgative shootout. Etc.
Vigilante Force is the kind of film I wish more people would see before they start their reflexive kvetching about Sam Peckinpah’s violence: a film of such consuming sleaziness of motivation and rationale that the feeblest gestures toward credibility and mere continuity are bypassed in the name of the next clop to the head, bullet to the gut, and fireball to the available epidermis. There’s this California town “‘so full of shit and easy money” that the good citizens hire a bunch of Nam and/or police force veterans to augment their regular law enforcement agency (decimated largely through congenital ineffectuality). The heaviest fist belongs to a onetime local boy (Kris Kristofferson) whose heroic war career did nothing to make people forget he used to be chief troublemaker thereabouts. At first the vigilante force performs with brutal efficiency, stomping and running out the whoremasters and bully boys who’ve been providing entertainment for the unruly oil workers who in turn symbolize the town’s new prosperity (some government restriction on local refining has been lifted due to the A-rab fuel crisis). But soon new bad guys are setting up shop—crooked gamblers, protection racketeers—with the blessing of old home boy Kristofferson, and he’s laying in a supply of automatic rifles and anti-tank weapons and hand grenades and whatever else helps him “stay on top of the field.” People start dying.
The screenplay drops an occasional leaden clue about Kristofferson’s unfortunate family history, and sneaks in a suggestion or two that the mayor (Brad Dexter) turns a blind eye to everything because his business is being left alone. But even when Kristofferson is careless enough to do murder in front of a witness and his decent-living brother (Jan-Michael Vincent) knows about the witness, it never occurs to anyone to pick up the phone and appeal to some authority outside the town. Nope, nothing will do but that the Green Mountain Boys, a local shooting club, get up a vigilante force of their own and proceed to celebrate Independence Day by blasting the bejeezus out of Kristofferson & co. in the silliest showdown in living memory. One wonders vaguely what Kristofferson is doing making movies like this. One or two more, and nobody will care.
Screenplay and direction: George Armitage. Cinematography: William Cronjager. Music: Gerald Fried. Production: Gene Corman.
The players. Kris Kristofferson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Victoria Principal, Bernadette Peters, Judson Pratt, Brad Dexter, David Doyle, John Steadman.
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson
A pdf of the original issue can be found here.