We live in a scary world that’s rife with crime, murder and corruption, so it’s perfectly understandable for the general population to feel powerless and vulnerable to such atrocities. That’s why we love superhero movies; they vicariously give us power and hope that we can fight back against the kind of evildoing we certainly would not be equipped to face in real life. A slightly more grounded version of the superhero archetype is the vigilante story, which shows an average Joe or Jane go after the bad guys within their own means, usually after suffering some form of mind-shattering trauma at the hands of the kind of criminals they eventually murder.
I don’t know how smart it is for Eli Roth to release a remake of Death Wish in the middle of such heated gun control debates, but the movie, starring Bruce Willis in the iconic Charles Bronson role as the average senior crime victim who turns into a one-man mugger killing machine, is in theaters regardless. (And frankly, it’s gotten pretty difficult to find a window where there’s not some horrible act of gun violence freshly minted.) So let’s rank five of the best vigilante films, some with wildly differing tones and genres. The ground rules for this list are pretty specific: First of all, revenge fantasies are out. The motivation for the character should be to stop random crime, not to go after their attackers. Second, the motivation should be personal, so the protagonist should not have been hired to take care of crime (Sorry, Yojimbo fans). Third, the means to fight crime should be relatively grounded, so Batman and Iron Man, as well as a wide array of superheroes, don’t qualify.
5. Death Wish (1974)
Director: Michael Winner
Brian Garfield, author of the original Death Wish novel, was upset about director Michael Winner’s take on his story. Garfield envisioned a schlubby everyman who was pushed to his limits by rampant crime and decided to go out and kill the perpetrators. The decision to cast Charles Bronson, an action star at the height of his machismo at the time, went against this concept. Garfield was also critical of the film’s glorification of the vigilante lifestyle, when his vision for the story was focused on the destructive nature of the eye-for-an-eye philosophy. It’s hard not to agree with Garfield while watching Death Wish, which presents a borderline fascistic fantasy on the eradication of crime, not to mention silly right-wing fulfillment that sees a cuck libtard snowflake character embracing the cold steel of a gun after witnessing a horrid crime firsthand. Yet at least there’s an attempt in the first Death Wish to show some of the mentally destructive results of such an action, as Bronson’s character becomes more and more unhinged as he quenches his thirst for dead muggers. It’s still not enough to give the film credit for being anything other than a straight exploitation piece, but at least it won’t make you feel as queasy as the sequels will. They basically turned the character into The Punisher: Senior Citizen Edition.
4. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Director: Lexi Alexander
Talking about The Punisher, I allowed myself one comic book hero for this list, and Frank Castle’s roided-up version of the Death Wish vigilante archetype fits the bill to a tee. There are many film and TV versions of the grizzled war veteran who vows a lifetime fight against crime after witnessing the horrid deaths of his wife and child, from the gritty to the downright ridiculous. For obvious reasons of fun-to-depressing ratio, I went with the ridiculous option. Director Lexi Alexander’s (Yes folks, a woman directed a comic book movie before Wonder Woman) giddily over-the-top vision blurs the line between exploitation and parody and captures the inherent goofiness of the original comic character. If you’re looking for an unhinged machine ready to turn even the most seemingly innocuous criminal into a bloody pulp (Castle’s first kill in the film is an old lady), then War Zone’s nonstop willful insanity should be your bag. If you’re still not convinced, I have four words for you: “Douchebag parkourist” and “rocket launcher”.
3. The Brave One (2007)
Director: Neil Jordan
The Brave One is essentially a gender-swapped Death Wish that’s directed by a respected helmer who understands the irreversible toll violence has on one’s soul, while not forgetting to deliver the reptilian brain thrills we would expect from a vigilante fantasy. The setup and structure are eerily similar to Death Wish: A liberal radio host (Jodie Foster) is attacked by criminals and decides to turn into a one-woman creep-killing machine. Instead of Death Wish’s bare attempts at examining the psychological and spiritual toll such a life would place on an average individual, The Brave One goes all in with the disorientation and confusion Foster’s character goes through, struggling with the inner conflict that her actions might have turned her city into an even more bloodthirsty den of maniacs. The traditional thriller ending drops the ball a bit, but The Brave One is an interesting genre exercise with a soul-drenching central performance by Foster.
2. Falling Down (1993)
Director: Joel Schumacher
Leaving most of the fantasy/exploitation angle behind, we’re settling into dramas that focus on the mental health aspects of vigilantism. Falling Down is the madcap but somehow relatable story of a divorced man with a decreasingly short fuse (Michael Douglas in a career-best performance) deciding to take a leisurely trek across the sweltering LA streets in order to see his estranged daughter, taking care of whatever crime or corporate element that has bugged him all his life in the process. Joel Schumacher’s near-masterpiece (When have you ever heard those words together?) on urban depression posits a lesser-examined (at the time) angle on vigilante films—that the hero might actually be the villain. Sure, Douglas’ D-Fens takes out despicable members of society, like a murderous neo-Nazi who unsurprisingly relates to him, but he also takes out his aggression on innocents like Korean grocers and fast food workers, just because he’s not satisfied with their service. When he’s finally told he’s the bad guy in this equation, he’s in denial. That’s mainly because, like many other disgruntled white men, he thinks he’s the savior of his community when in fact he’s the disruptor.
1. Taxi Driver (1976)
The jewel of ’70s Hollywood and one of the greatest films ever made, Taxi Driver is also a stunningly bold and deep exploration of the vigilante mentality. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), “God’s lonely man,” is at the end of his rope as he cannot contain his disgust regarding the rampant crime and debauchery he witnesses day in and day out. He decides to do something about it, but is he the selfless savior he fashions himself to be, or is he so insignificant and alone, that he craves the desire to be recognized and appreciated by any means necessary? Director Martin Scorsese hauntingly depicts ’70s New York as hell on Earth, but when it comes to Bickle’s eventual bloodbath, no punches are pulled in the depiction of the true insanity of its aftermath. If daily life for Bickle is hell, then the iconic bird’s eye view shot at the end establishes that he might have been its center all along.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.