An early 1980s addition to the “vigilante” action movie genre (released by American International Pictures), the Jan Michael Vincent vehicle DEFIANCE comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics.
Hardworking seaman Tommy (Jan Michael Vincent, WHITE LINE FEVER) is suspended after a fight, and is forced to take an apartment in the run-down Lower East Side of Manhattan among its ethnically diverse inhabitants. Attempting to learn to speak Spanish (by listening to instructional record albums) to prepare for his next job assignment, he doesn’t make too many friends at first but gains the attention of his neighbor Marsha (Theresa Saldana, RAGING BULL), a nice single Jewish girl who lives in the apartment above him, as the two quickly become romantically involved. But a vicious gang called the Souls, lead by the skinny, sly and deadly Latino Angel (Rudy Ramos, THE ENFORCER), has infiltrated the neighborhood, with special attention being put on the new kid on the block. The Souls beat up Tommy in a subway men’s room, and break into his apartment on several occasions (vandalizing the place with spray paint and strung-up dead rodents). Tommy can’t take anymore, as he fights back and protects some of the more vulnerable neighbors in the process, and he’s soon befriended by Carmine (Danny Aiello, MOONSTRUCK), a long-time neighborhood staple who wants to organize a revolt against these pushy punks. Further crimes are committed, but everyone is afraid to make a police report. With his life increasingly in danger, Tommy plans to board a ship as soon as the next job comes up, but will he stay behind and help protect his interim turf and its good citizens when things go way too far?
With the success of DEATH WISH and WALKING TALL in the 1970s, vigilante movies proved a successful formula at the box office, with the expected amounts of nail-biting ferocity. This cinema of vengeance genre was still popular in 1980s, with further DEATH WISH sequels along with other titles such as James Glickenhaus’ THE EXTERMINATOR (1980), Lewis Teague’s FIGHTING BACK (1982) and William Lustig’s VIGILANTE (1983) being released. Lost in the shuffle was DEFIANCE, which was not at all successful but did get a lot of play on HBO back in the day, which is where most people first saw it. The film is also significant in that it’s one of the last features released by American International Pictures (AIP) shortly after they were sold off to Filmways in 1979, existing merely as a subsidiary before being renamed for good (after the departure of founder Sam Arkoff). Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, DEFIANCE was helmed by veteran director John Flynn, whose previous effort was yet another revenge film of sorts, ROLLING THUNDER, which is far better known and far more revered than this one. Still, Flynn does a good job at maintaining the violent proceedings and pushing them as far as the PG Rating would allow, and though the film sometimes gets hokey and its gang member characters tend to be caricatures, DEFIANCE always keeps the viewer engaging from scene to scene (the PG rating actually keeps things at a more comfortable, less excessive level, with no rape scene or any extreme uneasiness similar R rated films often carry). With most of it being shot in the Greenwich Village area of New York City (with some obvious studio pickup shots), it’s a treat to see what that area looked like in the late 1970s, even if it only captures its more drab, less interesting parts.
In one of his last starring roles in a major motion picture (then moving on to do more television and later, numerous Z grade features before personal problems got the best of him), Vincent is perfectly cast as the reluctant hero with a stickball bat, and truly comes off as a total outsider and working class everyman. Saldana (in the movie which lead to her being stalked in unfortunate, highly publicized events which were later the basis of a TV movie she starred in) is also good and her bittersweet moments with her male co-star offer some temporary relief from the unlawful hysteria. But it’s the supporting cast that really makes DEFIANCE interesting, including a pre-frame (or at least pre household name status) Aiello who is rather over the top but well-cast as neighborhood loudmouth Carmine (was this a warm-up to his later, more recognized role in Spike Lee’s highly overrated DO THE RIGHT THING? You decide!). Art Carney appears in the lesser role of Jewish market owner Abe, who is fed up being harassed (you can just imagine what these lowlifes do to him) and his Oscar win for HARRY AND TONTO is played up in the film’s trailer. Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi in THE GODFATHER) plays a “Lenny”-like slow-witted ex boxer who brainstorms an idea of putting on his old fighting attire to challenge the evildoers (on top of the building’s roof) in one of the film’s sillier scenes. His live-in friend is a Latino boy (Fernando Lopez, whose voice looks to have been re-dubbed) and his safety is a main concern of Tommy. Another dependable veteran actor, Joseph Campanula (BEN) has a throwaway role as Tommy’s behind-the-desk job recruiter, and future “The Sopranos” star Tony Sirocco (aka Paulie 'Walnuts' Gualtieri) plays Carmine’s buddy, Davey. Blink and you’ll miss him, but future adult film director (and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT star) Fred Lincoln is also in there somewhere.
MGM issued DEFIANCE on VHS in 2001 (as a coverless Amazon.com exclusive) and more recently (in 2011) they released a made-on-demand DVD-R as part of their “Limited Edition Collection”. Kino Lorber Studio Classics once again rescues another MGM library title by delivering DEFIANCE on Blu-ray in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and full 1080p HD. For a gritty-looking film shot largely on the streets of New York, DEFIANCE looks great, with a nice stable image, terrific depth and detail, pleasing clarity, deep black levels, and colors also look healthy and stable. Grain is also maintained well, heavier in several shots, but that is likely due to the original cinematography. The DTS-HD mono is also strong, with music and sound effects being clear and dialogue levels also being strong. No subtitle options are on the disc. The extras are the original theatrical trailer, as well as the trailer for FORCED VENGEANCE, also available on Blu-ray from Kino, and also starring Jan Michael Vincent. (George R. Reis)
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