Staff Picks: 10 Vigilante Movies That Are Worth Your Time
From superhero blockbusters to B-grade exploitation, and more, the vigilante has been one of the most popular and enduring character types to permeate pop culture. Whether it’s the cowboys of the Old West hunting outlaws and corrupt despots; or caped crusaders with superpowers saving our planet when our government and law enforcement agencies are powerless; or the pissed off everyday citizens taking the law into their own hands when the justice system has proven useless, the vigilante stands for what’s right and isn’t afraid to disregard society’s rules if it’s for the greater good of those who can’t defend themselves.
With The Punisher fever in the air, we here Ghastly Grinning felt it was the perfect time to compile a list of our favorite vigilante flicks. As you’ll see, it’s quite an eclectic mix of movies that provide some insight into how diverse vigilante cinema truly is; however, this barely even scratches the surface when it comes to the wide variety at our disposal. This isn’t a definitive list, either; our choices are a mix of personal favorites and movies we feel deserve more recognition. Regardless, we hope you enjoy the list and we’d love it if you shared your own personal recommendations with us.
So, sit back, relax, and join us as we celebrate the heroes of genre cinema who were there to save the day when no one else could.
Coffy is one of my favorite movies of all-time, and Pam Grier is the queen of female action stars. Inspired by the male-centric heroes found in Blaxploitation fare like Superfly and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Grier provided a counterbalance to her male counterparts at the time, and to this day few action stars—of any gender—have come close to equalling her.
Directed by the exploitation king Jack Hill, Coffy follows our titular ass-kicker as she transforms from a regular nurse into a badass angel of retribution hell-bent on eliminating the inner-city drug trade. Armed with her looks that kill and a double-barrelled shotgun that literally kills, she uses her powers of seduction and prowess with weapons to clean the streets of its criminal filth one unlucky motherfucker at a time. Coffy is pure exhilaration and cathartic entertainment at its finest. - Kieran Fisher
Death Wish (1974)
Death Wish is the kind of film that can't really be emulated today, even though many follow a similar narrative. Charlie Bronson makes Liam Neeson's level of vengeance look like a domestic feud between your elderly neighbour and the corner shop clerk over the price of cigarettes. Death Wish is also a fascinating example of society’s reception to media that might corrupt the masses, as the film was condemned for the way it romanticized such a violent crusader out for retribution against characters comprising of minority groups. It’s interesting to see how society has become desensitized to unlawful violence in movies to the point where most action films will surpass the level of aggression within Death Wish, but as this movie showed, there’s an audience who find it cathartic. Still, this Bronson romp triggered the vigilante action genre as we know it today given that it actually popularized the genre. Following its release, a slew of imitators followed which thrust the Everyman into urban warfare. Some were arguably much better than Michael Winner’s trendsetter, but Death Wish’s influence makes it worthy of inclusion on this list. - Philip Hayton.
If Westerns have taught us anything about the Old West, it’s that it was a time of lawlessness and a place where vigilantes and bounty hunters stood between outlaws and wrong types whenever sheriff’s or the cavalry couldn’t get the job done. Here, harbingers of justice could be hired to enforce law and order, but sometimes they stood up for a noble cause free of charge because it was the right thing to do. And when it comes to Westerns about such characters, Keoma, an Italian spaghetti yarn from Enzo G. Castellari, deserves more recognition.
In Keoma, Franco Nero plays the vigilante cowboy the film is named after. His character is a half-Indian who returns home from the Civil War to find that a nearby plague-ridden town is being ruled by some vicious tyrants. So, like any good heroic cowboy would do, he wages war on the powers that be so he can relieve the townsfolk of the evil dictatorship they’re forced to live under.
While Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy is the pinnacle of Westerns of this ilk, Keoma makes the list because it has more dirt and grime in its nails, which all the best stories about vigilante justice should contain. - Kieran Fisher
NYC factory worker Eddie (Robert Forster) Marino’s wife is followed home after an altercation at a gas station where she’s brutally stabbed and their young child is blown the fuck away with a double-barrelled shotgun at point blank range by a savage gang of street pirates. After the gang leader gets off due to shady political fuckery, victim Eddie loses it on the judge and is sent to prison where he must deal with inmates on the inside out for blood and gang rape. Once out, he joins his factory co-workers secret vigilante gang and hunts down the filthy garbage people involved and their drug ring that has ties all the way up to the Mayor’s office.
This is an uncompromising vigilante film and another unflinching New York story from Bill Lustig. It’s sleazy, nihilistic, brutal, and as street as you can get. Lowlife trash rule the neighborhoods, judges are easily bought, and law enforcement are utterly useless. Joe Spinell (Maniac) shows up as a scumbag shifty lawyer, and Robert Forster gets to blow away derelict street urchin scum in the concrete jungle slums of crime-ridden 1980’s New York. If that’s not enough to sell you on this urban spaghetti western, I dunno what else to tell ya. - Ian West
The Crow (1994)
“In a world without justice, one man was chosen to protect the innocent.”
Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) just about sums up vigilante. Revenge is in his blood, however; he is helping out individuals who cannot fend for themselves against evil. The Crow is quintessential 1994 horror and I remember it being very big in the more ‘emo’ scene during my high school years. I have heard people say these days that it is overrated, but I’m not here for that. This movie was part of my teenage years and I will still love it to this day. It still upsets me that we don’t have Lee around, as I believe he would have been a star. The Crow is poetic, dark, romantic, and suspenseful. It’s worth the watch. - Rachael Hauschild
Boy Wonder (2010)
There's something extremely liberating with seeing ordinary citizens take the law into their own hands. To act as judge, jury and executioner and do the job that the law enforcement can't or aren't willing to do. And with a long list of great vigilante-themed movies to choose from for this piece I decided to go with a little indie film that I almost never see get the love it deserves, which is Boy Wonder from 2010. The movie tells the story of a young boy named Sean who witnesses the brutal murder of his mother when a carjacker attacks his family. He becomes obsessed with catching the killer and years later the anti-social teenager patrols the mean streets of New York at night seeking out crime to stop and criminals to eliminate. Boy Wonder feels like the 42nd Street version of movies like Kick-Ass and Super (both of which I love). It´s gritty and it's brutal and I love every minute of it. At the same time you also get the feeling that you could be watching a superhero origin story. Some changes here and there and our young vigilante could've been named Bruce Wayne instead of Sean. I can't recommend this movie enough, so seek it out and give it a watch. Trust me, it's worth it. - Dick Waychester
7 Days (2010)
There is some element of fun, or at least satisfaction, to most vigilante movies. Both the vigilante and the audience are able to work out this fantasy scenario of the bad guys getting what they deserve. But do these movies always tell the truth in regards to the complex issues that surround a story like this? One that I think does is the 2010 French-Canadian film 7 Days. You won’t find anything fun in this bleak story about a father who kidnaps and tortures the man who raped and murdered his 8-year-old daughter.
What you will find in 7 Days is a cold, emotionally exhausting, and yet fascinating exploration of the morality behind vigilante justice. This movie does not at all take a narrow-minded approach of the subject. It uses several characters - the father himself; the mothers of the murderer’s victims; and the police officer looking for the father - to ask all those tough questions. Is vigilante justice right? Is forgiveness possible? In the end, the viewer is perhaps not left with any answers to these questions, which is frustrating, but that’s what makes these movies fascinating.
Like I said, 7 Days isn’t a fun movie to watch. However, it is beautifully acted and executed, and one that will get inside your head and not let go. - Michele Eggen
The bright neon aesthetic. The retro 80's synth inspired soundtrack. The James Dean cool of Ryan Gosling. With Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn went from an up-and-comer to an indie darling. Drive has the kind of subtlety that draws you in and allows you to enjoy the slow build up until we finally get the first indication that Gosling is one badass motherfucker. Playing an unnamed stuntman who is also secretly a getaway driver, Drive takes a plot that seems at home in fifties cinema and gives a sleek neo-noir makeover to present one of the most quietly violent and beautiful films of the post-aught generation. It's everything you could want in a vigilante film. A roguishly handsome lead, a romantic subplot, and a soundtrack that will keep in you in the film even when the runtime is long past over. - Ryan Larson
Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)
Some of the highlights of Quentin Tarantino’s and Robert Rodriguez’s ambitious Grindhouse project was the faux trailers featured in between segments. While one of those trailers went on to inspire the creation of an entertaining vigilante movie in the form of Mexploitation homage Machete, the exposure it brought to newbie Canadian director Jason Eisener is the most positive takeaway I’ll always fondly associate with Grindhouse. Because of the positive response to his Hobo with a Shotgun trailer, he was able to turn it into a full-length feature that lives up to its name and then some.
The film stars Rutger Hauer as our vigilante vagabond. All he wants to do is save up enough money to buy a lawnmower so he can make a living cutting grass. However, when the big day comes to finally buy his lawnmower, a group of armed robbers storm the store to deprive a man from making an honest living. This inspires Hauer to pick up a shotgun and start disposing of scumbags one shell at a time. With the help of a prostitute he’s convinced is actually a school teacher, he cleans up the streets by leaving a trailer of splattered brains and broken skulls in his wake. Yet, the relationship between a homeless avenger and a prostitute makes for a heartwarming experience; they’re both outcasts who form a beautiful mushy friendship in a world gone chaotic and mad. This is a wild movie, but it’s also beautifully warm and cozy. - Kieran Fisher
Blue Ruin (2013)
There are essentially two types of cinematic vigilantes: the determined vigilante and the resigned vigilante. The determined vigilante will open up a can of whoop ass at any cost. The resigned vigilante is only called into action once he sees you curb-stomping an old lady. Results vary.
In writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s slow-burn vigilante movie, Blue Ruin, we’re dealing with a very, very determined vigilante. Dwight (an excellent Macon Blair) is as determined as he is exceedingly inept. After taking out Wade Cleland, a recent parolee who Dwight suspects murdered his parents, Dwight has a very obvious choice: he can either flee the situation or face the crossbow-toting Cleland clan full-on. In true vigilante mode, Dwight gets locked and loaded. As his best buddy Ben tells him, ‘I know this is personal, that’s how you’ll fail…no speeches, no talkin’,..you point the gun, you shoot the gun.’ And that’s how vigilantes roll. - Ryan Daley