Death Wish, Watchmen, and now Prisoners: Vigilante justice in the movies By Richard Crouse Metro Canada September 18, 2013
In this weekend’s movie Prisoners a father, played by Hugh Jackman, kidnaps the man he thinks abducted his daughter and her young best friend. It’s a classic case of vigilante justice, a practice another movie character, Foxy Brown, called “as American as apple pie.”
It’s also illegal, dangerous and morally unsound, but that doesn’t stop Hollywood from featuring vigilantes in their stories.
Comic books have supplied the movies with vigilantes for years. According to comicbookmovie.com, “It is important to state one truth,” they write, “[and] that is, all comic book heroes, unless sanctioned by the government, are vigilantes.” That’s a wide group that includes, among others, Batman, Spiderman and Iron Man.
Lesser known is Rorschach, the anti-hero of the graphic novel The Watchmen and played by Jackie Earle Haley in the movie of the same name. He’s a masked crime fighter who believes in only good and evil. This black-and-white morality drives his ruthless need to punish evil-doers at all costs.
“Were it not for costumed vigilantism,” says the actor, “he’d have nothing.”
Rorschach is effective and lethal, but Paul Kersey didn’t wear a costume to earn his star on the Vigilante Walk of Fame. As played by Charles Bronson in five Death Wish movies, he cleaned up the streets with an efficiency that would make the Watchmen envious.
In the original 1974 film Kersey is an architect driven to taking the law into his own hands following the brutal murder of his wife. “If the police don’t defense us,” he says, “maybe we ought to do it ourselves.”
Star Bronson was quick to say that he didn’t “advocate anyone taking the law into their own hands,” but knew that the Death Wish movies were popular because, “Audiences like to see the bad guys get their comeuppance.”
Harry Brown is a gritty Gran Torino with British accents and a dash of Death Wish. Michael Caine plays the title character as High Noon’s Gary Cooper, but instead of being set on the wide open plain, the action in this Teabag Western takes place in the urban terrain of the Elephant and Castle section of London.
“This movie changed me,” Caine said. “I started out thinking, ‘Let’s go out and make a movie about killing all these scumbags,’ and then I met these people and realized they were helpless, just as much as the victims, and they had been neglected and they need help.”