Essays · Movies

18 Great Vigilante Movies

“If the law won’t get them… we will!”
By  · Published on March 5th, 2018

The law doesn’t always deliver satisfying justice. When the powers that be fail to get the job done it’s up to citizens to take the law into their own hands and unleash their own brand of righteous punishment and retribution upon society’s miscreants and wrongdoers. Vigilante characters — from the gunmen of the Old West to superheroes and the regular everyday people in between who’ve just had enough — are some of the most popular in entertainment because stories about people righting wrongs appeal to our human nature. Especially when they do it with violence.

Mostly, though, we just want to be entertained, and given the far-fetched premises of films of this nature, they often provide an abundance of cathartic joy. Vigilante movies come in various forms, but for this list we’re focusing on hard-edged genre flicks where angry characters exact justice in violent ways. Superhero avengers are everywhere these days, so we’re sticking with the dirty, gritty world of regular people redirecting the pain back towards everyday villains. They’re more believable characters and still managedto tickle our macabre sensibilities and love of carnage.

This isn’t a definitive ranking list either, but you can rest assured that Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, and I are recommending quality here. We’re physically unable to do otherwise.

Fist Of Fury

Fist of Fury (1972)

A.K.A. The Chinese Connection. Bruce Lee’s second feature as a lead sees the martial arts master taking on the Japanese occupation of China. When Lee’s disgraced student returns to his school for his master’s funeral, he discovers that the very honor of his nation is in jeopardy. Deemed weaklings by the local karate dojo, Lee confronts their art with his own. He’s a blur of action, and it’s almost laughable watching the others attempt to match the speed of Lee’s fists. What may begin as a mission of anger and revenge quickly escalates into full-on war for the people, pitting Lee against the entire Japanese army. Not your traditional entry in vigilante cinema, however, Fist of Fury absolutely exhibits a righteous man decimating those he deems morally bankrupt. For the good of his friends, for the good of his country. – Brad Gullickson

Coffy (1973)

Back in the 70’s, Pam Grier showed that she was just as capable as her male counterparts when it came to kicking ass, taking names, and being cooler than a polar bear’s toenails while doing it. Coffy, the movie which paved the way for female action stars in American cinema, sees her go up against drug pushers and corrupt politicians as she avenges the death of her sister. It’s also one of the best movies ever made. – Kieran Fisher

White Line Fever (1975)

Carrol Jo Hummer (Jan-Michael Vincent) returns home to Tucson, Arizona after serving in the Air Force. He marries his old sweetheart and then follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes a truck driver. Carrol Jo quickly discovers that the truck driving game isn’t what it used to and is now run by a large corrupt corporation that pushes the little guy around. The truckers need a revolt and Carrol Jo is the one to lead it. This movie rules and co-stars Slim Pickens, Dick Miller, and Martin Kove. – Chris Coffel

Vigilante Force (1976)

A small California town discovers oil and is soon overrun by a rambunctious group of oil-field workers. Crime quickly skyrockets and becomes too much to handle for the town’s small police force, so a young resident (Jan-Michael Vincent) brings in his Vietnam vet brother (Kris Kristofferson) to clean things up. After the war hero gets rid of the oil workers, though, he takes over the town himself and begins running his own crime syndicate leading to an epic showdown of brother versus brother. – Chris Coffel

Rolling Thunder

Rolling Thunder (1977)

The post-Vietnam years were a booming period for genre films. As many troops struggled to re-integrate into regular society following the conflict, some filmmakers explored these notions by telling stories about ex-soldiers trying to find a home in a world that had moved on without them. Here, William Devane returns to America as a war hero only to have his family murdered by thugs during a home invasion. Naturally, he has a problem with that and decides to retaliate. Unlike some movies on this list, this isn’t a fun experience, but the action beats are strong and purposeful, while Tommy Lee Jones’ performance is a career highlight. – Kieran Fisher

The Exterminator (1980)

This old video nasty from the hella underrated James Glickenhaus is your typical Death Wish clone, though it contains so much savage personality it manages to surpass Michael Winner’s film as an exploitation romp. Like Death Wish, the story takes place in the mean streets of NYC and features a middle-aged everyman offing the criminals who hurt someone close to him. In this case, our protagonist is a former soldier who wields a flamethrower and dispatches of victims in extremely gruesome ways. Roger Ebert once criticized it for being “a small, unclean exercise in shame.” Some of you will probably agree with that sentiment. – Kieran Fisher

Defiance (1980)

Tommy (Jan-Michael Vincent) is a seamen that moves into a temporary apartment in New York City while waiting for his next assignment. The apartment is located in a neighborhood littered with crime, but Tommy’s plan is to not get involved and just keep to himself. Good luck with that Tommy. Defiance is standard vigilante fare but worth a watch because it features peak Vincent and an 80’s thug version of Zorro. – Chris Coffel

Ms. 45 (1981)

Thana is having a bad day. Not only did she wake up as mute and socially awkward as she was the day before, but she also has the misfortune of being raped twice, by two different men, in completely unrelated incidents. Wrong place, wrong time… Thana is essentially the John McClane of rape victims. The double-barreled assault leaves her understandably traumatized, but instead of going to the police or curling up into a quivering ball Thana picks up a .45 and starts wandering the streets looking for misbehavin’ men. Abel Ferrara’s film has long been considered an exploitation classic, but while it’s often categorized as an early entry in the rape/revenge subgenre only the first half of that is accurate. There’s actually very little revenge to be found here as Thana’s rage explodes mostly on men unrelated to her assaults. Instead, the film offers up a violent descent into madness that gives birth to style and visual excesses in the form of acts of violence attractive staging, overhead kill shots, and wonderfully profane costume choices. – Rob Hunter

Tom Skerritt Stars In Fighting Back

Fighting Back (1982)

John D’Angelo (Tom Skerritt) is an average guy who’s happily married and owner of his own small business in Philadelphia. He doesn’t like the increasing crime he’s seeing around him, though, and after his own family is victimized he decides it’s time to fight back. The underrated Lewis Teague directed this one between Alligator and Cujo, and his approach to human monsters sees him operating in far more of a gray area. Our hero builds up a neighborhood watch program of sorts, but one whose members are ready and jonesing to commit violence against those they deem as criminal. The film touches on racial elements too, but rather than wrap that part up with a lesson for D’Angelo it leaves the idea hanging — our good guy isn’t as purely good as we expect, and that raises fascinating questions in the face of his vigilante group’s success. – Rob Hunter

Vigilante (1982)

If you watch a bunch of genre movies from the 70’s and 80’s, you’ll find that New York was often portrayed as a crime-ridden hellscape. Back then, the city was one of the most dangerous on the planet, and action and horror movies didn’t waste the chance to channel those urban anxieties and create grimy little yarns. In Vigilante, a group of pissed off blue-collar workers band together to clean up the streets of degenerate gangland filth when the law fails to act and punishes an honest man instead. This movie has a bone to pick with the American justice system, and it’s more than just another violent actioner. – Kieran Fisher

The Star Chamber (1983)

Steven Hardin (Michael Douglas) is a young criminal judge who’s already grown tired and disgusted with a justice system that requires him to let obvious criminals go over legal technicalities. His clear anger catches the eye of a group of judges who’ve decided to do something about it — they meet in secret and pass judgement on these miscarriages of justice, and then they send a hitman to make things right. But what happens when one of their targets is innocent after all? This is a fun thriller that lets viewers experience the cathartic high of vigilantism as well as the morally nebulous lows of punishing bad men for crimes they didn’t commit. Douglas has always excelled with characters who begin superior only to see events put him in his place, and that’s what we get here along with some solid action, philosophical questions, and the great Hal Holbrook. – Rob Hunter

Pale Rider (1985)

When a boy prays over the body of his dead dog, Clint Eastwood‘s mysterious stranger rides down from the mountains to act as the hand of god against the industrial fat cats responsible for the slaughter of countless prospectors mining the rich California soil. Pale Rider is often accurately cited as a pale imitation (pun intended) of High Plains Drifter. However, Eastwood’s shootist here is less of a vengeful spirit, and more of a righteous seeker of justice. Rage does not motivate his quick draw. It’s a simple case of right vs. wrong, and who has the coolest duster. – Brad Gullickson

Rolling Vengeance

Rolling Vengeance (1987)

A young man’s family is killed and his girlfriend is raped by a group of local drunks, but the goons get off with a small fine thanks to their father (Ned Beatty) being a prominent business man with a lot of clout. The police are unwilling to help which means there’s only one reasonable solution — build a monster truck of death and seek vengeance. – Chris Coffel

The Punisher (1989)

Say what you will about the caliber of Frank Castle’s original cinematic outing, but what Dolph Lundgren‘s version of The Punisher understands is that there is no recovery from revenge. Once you’ve honored your deceased family by snuffing out the life of the bastards responsible, you cannot simply hang up the Kevlar. The demon needs to be fed, and Lundgren’s Castle continues to kill whatever criminals he can target because he simply doesn’t know what to do with himself after he’s had his revenge. The acting is wonky, the dialogue is iffy, but the misery of his perpetual violence is legit. The Punisher is no hero. He’s a killer lost in his endeavor. That’s what has been missing in his more recent, comic booky adaptations. – Brad Gullickson

The Boondock Saints (1999)

A pair of fraternal twins kill a pair of Russian mobsters in self-defense and become a beacon of hope for the people living in the crime-infested streets of Boston. Considered by many at the time to be a poor imitation of a Quentin Tarantino film, The Boondock Saints has since developed a rabid cult fan base, and rightfully so. You never know when you’re going to need rope. In nomine Patri. Et Filii. Spiritus Sancti. – Chris Coffel

God Bless America (2011)

Bobcat Goldthwait’s blacker than midnight comedy is a hatred-filled takedown of American pop culture that will score some serious chuckles and have you questioning your sense of decency throughout the runtime. When Joel Murray‘s insurance salesman just can’t take the migraines anymore, he imagines opening fire upon his jerkwad neighbors. Fantasy leads into reality, and Murray sets off across this great land in a kill crazy rampage to rid the streets of our poisonous obsessions with tv, film, and talk radio. God Bless America is a flick for anyone who has shamefully taken pleasure in the train wreck auditions of American Idol. It’s a punishing act of self-flagellation. We’re all guilty of the sins it’s skewering. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. – Brad Gullickson


Hobo With a Shotgun (2011)

Rutger Hauer plays a hobo. He has a shotgun. Need I say more? If Hauer snarling and blasting his way through scumbags doesn’t sell you, you’re broken. This movie is gloriously unhinged, but it’s also surprisingly sweet and touching. Between newspaper thieves being blown to smithereens and hospitals being massacred by ancient demonic assassins, we witness two outsiders — a derelict and a prostitute — form a beautiful friendship amid the madness around them. This is how you make a Grindhouse throwback that evokes the spirit of its forefathers while showing them sincere love. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go wash this guy’s asshole off my face. – Kieran Fisher

I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance Is Mine (2015)

Jennifer was assaulted years ago and dealt a violent and decisive revenge against her attackers, but now she’s living a new life under an assumed name. When her friend is murdered and the justice system fails, she sets out to right the wrong with some good old fashioned vigilante justice — and then she acquires a taste for it. I skipped the two previous Spit films (the actual rape/revenge ones) but there’s a lot to enjoy about this second sequel. Rapid-cut flashbacks aside we’re not made to watch any sexual assaults here, and instead we’re given a graphic, female-led take on Death Wish as Jennifer goes looking for men to punish. Did I mention it’s graphic? Because sweet jesus there’s a scene involving a mouth, a member, and a knife that is not pleasant. There’s a sense of humor here too, and while it doesn’t always feel right it works for the character more often than not. And then there’s the scene with the lubed metal pipe… – Rob Hunter

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.