Even though I lived through it (and saw a lot of the movies), it’s still hard to believe there was a time when Jan-Michael Vincent was one of the biggest movie stars around. When I was nine, my parents and I were camping outside of Telluride, CO (back before the hippies, then the yuppies, discovered the place). We went into town one night and hit the local movie theater, a nice old single-screen owned by a young married couple. The movie was Disney’s The World’s Greatest Athlete, and about halfway through the flick, the projector broke down. To this day, I still remember the wife in tears, handing people their money back as we filed out. We went back the next night and everything worked great, and that was my introduction to the films of Jan-Michael Vincent.
Granted, a family film like The World’s Greatest Athlete is kind of an aberration as far as Vincent’s ouvre went at the time — he tended towards more adult fare (such as the original version of The Mechanic, 1972) and flat-out drive-in exploitation cheese, which is where I’d put Vigilante Force.
Produced by Gene (Roger’s brother) Corman and written and directed by George Armitage (best known for Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank), Vigilante Force gives us a pretty good idea of what to expect right outta the gate — crazy oil field workers run amok in a small town, a chick in her underwear dances on a pool table, a guy is gunned down, a bar fight breaks out, a cop car is set on fire and shot up before exploding — and all that shit happens during the opening credits! I figured it would all be downhill from there, but Armitage never lets up for the entire running time.
With all that action out of the way, we meet Ben (Jan-Michael Vincent) as he picks up his daughter and heads for the farm equipment store he runs. There we meet his open-shirted employee Paul (Andrew Stevens). Apparently in the 70s, many men chose to parade around with their shirts hanging open or with no shirt whatsoever, because there’s a shit-ton of male torso on display in this movie.
Before we get too comfortable with this charming scene, gunfire erupts as a battle between cops and more crazy oil field workers takes place in the street. A couple cops are shot along with a bystander or two, and the bad guys make their escape.
We cut to a square dance, where Ben talks with some of the menfolk (including David Doyle, “Bosley” from Charlie’s Angels) about the violence that’s overcome their once-peaceful little town. Shakey Malone (John Steadman, recognizable from a zillion movies), the old man who runs the diner, says “If I wanna live with degenerates I’ll move to L.A.!” They want Ben to bring his brother Aaron — “a genuine war hero” — in to help get things under control. Aaron has a bit of a shady history, it seems, but Ben agrees to give it a shot.
Ben goes to see Aaron (Kris Kristofferson), who is working as a shaggy-haired security guard at an airfield. When Ben explains the situation, Aaron tells his boss to shove it and we cut to a local watering hole, where Ben is introduced to Aaron’s buddies. These guys are all gonna be on the team — or the “Vigilante Force,” as the title might suggest. The men are sworn in as a sort of auxiliary police force. What could possibly go wrong?
Afterwards, Ben goes to see his girlfriend, Linda (a saucy young Victoria Principal) at the rooming house where she lives. Ben drinks a beer and tries to make out with Linda, but the creepy old lady who runs the place yells at him to “Stop that cheap physical groping this instant!” Ben and Linda go up to her room, where the old lady peeps through the keyhole as they roll around in the sack.
It might seem like we’ve gone four or five minutes without a fistfight or a shootout, but like I say, Armitage keeps it comin’. That night Ben takes Aaron out on the town and shows him the streets lined with troublemakers. A fight breaks out and Aaron puts a stop to it, telling the two men involved that they’re under arrest. They get in the back of Ben’s pickup, where the fight continues. They fall out and Aaron cleans both their clocks for ’em.
Aaron sets up house at an abandoned ranch, then meets Little Dee (Bernadette Peters) singing in a dive bar with an illegal casino in the back room. The great Dick Miller plays piano while Little Dee murders the tune and an onlooker says “Linda Ronstadt she ain’t.”
Now, this is where things start to get a little disjointed, and I suspect that some stuff must’ve been trimmed to get the flick down to a 90-minute running time. In a flurry of quick scenes, Aaron takes Little Dee back to the seedy motel where she lives for a little hanky-panky, then puts his boots on early the next morning and joins up with his heavily-armed buddies outside. They chase a bunch of whores and other riff-raff out of the motel. Meanwhile, Ben and Linda talk and Ben’s daughter scurries around in her Uncle Sam costume for the upcoming 4th of July parade.
We start to see what Aaron is really up to as he lets himself into the police chief’s office, steals a purchase order, and uses it to buy a whole bunch of weapons. Back at the ranch, Aaron tries out one of his new assault rifles as a dude in a Cadillac shows up. This guy is gonna be the casino boss and he grabs Little Dee’s butt while on the phone ordering up the necessary casino supplies.
More fistfights ensue and Aaron seems to be doing his job, but the police chief doesn’t approve of his methods. Soon, Aaron’s boys are running around leaning on people for protection money, throwing ketchup bottles around the diner and bending bike wheels to make their point.
Paul, Ben’s employee, takes his girlfriend to the happenin’ casino one night, where Peaches (an uncredited Loni Anderson) gets friendly with him. She basically shoves him outside where he gets the crap beat out of him, but Aaron arrives to save his bacon. After Paul leaves, Aaron chews out the guy running the casino, telling him it’s important to let the rubes win now and again without stomping a mudhole in their asses afterwards.
The police chief gets a phone call inquiring about the anti-tank weapon and other stuff he bought, and he suspects Aaron may have had himself a little shopping spree. The chief goes to see Ben, telling him about the weapons, but Ben defends his brother.
Later, Shakey Malone shows up to tell Ben that the diner’s been vandalized and that Aaron ain’t such a good guy. When Ben objects, Shakey accuses him of being in on it. Ben confronts Aaron about the protection racket but Aaron plays dumb.
We find Linda hanging around an oil worker picnic that also features cockfighting. As the cocks get busy, Aaron and his boys arrive and Aaron shoots the roosters dead. He demands the money that was bet on the fight and an oil worker flings beer in his face. Aaron shoots him and yet another fight breaks out. When the dust settles, Aaron collects the money, stuffing it into Linda’s shirt.
From here on out, it’s basically a case of Aaron doing more and more evil stuff until Ben can no longer deny that his brother is a bad seed. One of those evil things is so cold-blooded and brutal it actually shocked me, but I say this as a testament to Armitage’s filmmaking rather than as a warning. Anyway, once brother is pitted against brother the flick really goes apeshit, culminating in an extremely cool running gun battle between Ben’s shooting club and Aaron’s thugs (all clad in marching band costumes), with some great stunt work on display (back in the days when humans would fling themselves around instead of being replaced by digital replicas).
Vigilante Force is a hell of a good drive-in flick with a great cast, lots of crazy action, and an exceptional talent calling the shots. Definitely recommended.
For more funky movie reviews, check out my book Unsafe On Any Screen:
And you might dig my new novel, Squirrel Eyes (a story of lust, movies and more):
Not to mention my collection of short stories, Tales of Misery and Imagination: