Fighting Back

FIGHTING BACK (1982), a.k.a. DEATH VENGEANCE a.k.a. STREET WARS, is another vigilante drama produced by Dino De Laurentiis, obviously wanting to follow up on his success with DEATH WISH after selling that off to Cannon. DEATH WISH II came out about three months before this, but if Laurentiis was trying to take the wind out of its sails, he was not successful. Cannon kept all the wind and this one remains fairly obscure, despite a nice blu-ray release from Arrow.

But it has some good people behind it. It’s directed by Lewis Teague between ALLIGATOR and CUJO, written by Tom Hedley (FLASHDANCE) and David Zelag Goodman (STRAW DOGS, LOGAN’S RUN, THE EYES OF LAURA MARS, FREEDOM ROAD). Rather than a badass like Charles Bronson it stars the more everyman-ish Tom Skerritt (who would follow this with THE DEAD ZONE, TOP GUN and SPACECAMP) and it seems to be going for a less pulpy, more down to earth approach… except in the important matter of the inciting incident. For that they provide us with as hysterical of a “crime is out of control these days” exaggeration as we could ever ask for.

Skerritt plays John D’Angelo, beloved life long resident of a largely Italian-American Philadelphia neighborhood, and humble owner of D’Angelo’s deli (which has a sign out front saying “The Best Italian Hero in Town”). One day while they’re driving home his pregnant wife Lisa (Patti LuPone, 1941, PARKER, BEAU IS AFRAID, breaking into movies shortly after starring in the original Broadway production of Evita) notices a pimp named Eldorado (Pete Richardson, “Jackson’s Guard,” DEATH PROMISE, “Pimp,” A WALK WITH DEATH) beating up a prostitute, and gets out of the car to intervene. John pulls her away but the incident escalates to a Cadillac full of pimps and prostitutes chasing them home and ramming their station wagon through their white picket fence, causing Lisa to have a miscarriage.

That’s not all! In what seems like the very next day, John asks his son Danny (Jonathan Adam Sherman) to walk his mom Vera (Gina DeAngelis, “Old Crone,” MOONSTRUCK) home, but they stop at a drugstore that happens to be being robbed by ski-masked psychos who threaten to blow Danny’s nuts off and then actually do chop off Vera’s finger to steal her wedding ring. The guy tugs on the ring like two times before reaching to his back pocket where he keeps the pruner. Always be prepared.

At the hospital John yells at a detective who says “We’re doing all that we can do about it” and “You know what kind of shortage we have with police?” (to this day the go-to excuse for problems in our society). John “sure as fuck can’t thank the police department” but is friends with an officer named Vince Morelli (Michael Sarrazin, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY, FEARDOTCOM), who tries to calm him down.

Across from the deli there’s a park that John is nostalgic about playing in as a kid but now it has somehow turned into ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK with burning oil drums and pimps, prostitutes and gamblers listening to “Meant For You” by Debra Laws on a boombox that John claims are openly selling dope an stolen stereos. “Look at those fuckers, they own the park!” But Vince says he can’t arrest them.

The next day John sees Eldorado’s zebra-striped pimpmobile parked outside the Brunswick Bar, and Vince can’t stop him from storming in to confront him. It looks like it’s like 2 in the afternoon outside but inside there are at least 50 toughs playing pool and getting drunk. And they’re listening to “I Was Meant For You” again! A bunch of people get in John’s face, Eldorado tells him he shits in his pants, and he fires a gun into the floor. Not a successful encounter. Cut to a big neighborhood meeting at the deli where he serves everyone food and proposes forming “a citizen’s group” to “scare some respect out of the punks.” Vince is there to consult on how to do it without getting in trouble. I was surprised to see Pat Ryan, who played the mayor in the original THE TOXIC AVENGER and the junkyard owner in STREET TRASH, as one of the skeptical neighbors. He wasn’t in very many movies.

Note that the meeting is like 98% men, with their wives holed up in the kitchen. Lisa thinks they should move but another woman very persuasively says “What else are we gonna do? This is our home” and an old lady adds, “Yes, and we’re established here.”

It’s relevant to say that these are mostly white people. When a Black man named Les (Jim Moody, THE LAST DRAGON, WHO’S THE MAN?) stands up to give his support, he prefaces it with “John, I just want to say that I got alot of reasons for not getting involved in any of this, and I think you understand what I mean.” Everybody does seem to understand what he means.

In the next scene they are the People’s Neighborhood Patrol, they already have a logo and a big sign to hang up on their new headquarters. They have at least two vehicles, one like an ambulance (made out of a hearse?) and one with a big grill on the front as if for the post-apocalypse. So obviously this has a totally different dynamic than DEATH WISH just because it’s a whole segment of society openly deciding to do this, rather than one psycho sneaking around in the dark trying not to get caught (while some people root for him in the media).

They get CPR lessons from the fire department, which is nice (though they giggle the whole time and pretend to make out with the dummy). But their first official action is to storm the Brunswick Bar. This time a different Debra Laws song, “How Long” is playing. When the bartender is unfriendly to him, John throws a beer in his face and starts punching people, starting a brawl that totally wrecks the place. Way to stop crime.

By the way, Vince looked nervous about the bar thing, but just didn’t participate, which serves as his wink-wink permission. He seems to be the conscience of the group, but he never truly puts his foot down.

The first patrol we see is surprisingly successful. They happen to spot and chase down an arsonist. John throws him off a building and pretends he fell on his own and lied about it. Later he catches a purse snatcher and that guy he only embarrasses by hanging on a meat hook. So he’s getting better at this.

The criminals or somebody don’t seem happy with him, though. Somebody wrecks the D’Angelo house, kills their dog and hangs the corpse in the shower. The neighbors like him, though. There’s a big party for him and they present him with Italian flags and stuff. A news reporter (Donna de Varona) interviews him and he says “We’re just exercising our Constitutional rights.” A councilman (Mandel Kramer) sees him on TV and assumes he’s gunning for his seat, so he pressures the police Commissioner (Ted Ross, POLICE ACADEMY) and chief (Earle Hyman, The Cosby Show, Thundercats) to go after him.

Sure enough, some guys take John to lunch, give him a cigar and tell him he should run for office. He tells them he’s not interested in politics and belongs on the streets, then we cut to him telling Vinnie how “the problem ain’t just in the streets, you know, it’s the politicians, judges, you know what I mean?” When he tells Lisa he’s running she says, “When was the last time you voted?” But of course this idiot is gonna run and win.

Things escalate, people get killed, the park turns into a war zone, somebody builds a miniature model of it for planning, and the “punks” are still listening to that Debra Laws song! Man, they love her. There’s lots of ridiculous exaggeration, but mostly not too laughable. Except for the part where he notices Danny’s friend seems sick at the dinner table and less than a minute later has searched his backpack and found a syringe.

One of the funnier parts is when John attacks a drug dealer at the chicken restaurant he works out of, and then it cuts to him at the dinner table defending his actions to Vinnie over two buckets of chicken he brought home with him. Also the part where he sneaks out of his election party, goes onto the roof of a strip club and drops a water balloon tied to a hand grenade onto Eldorado’s convertible. It tears right through the roof, the balloon splashes and Eldorado has enough time to ask “Oh man, what kind of shit is…?” before getting blown to bits. Then John returns to the party and acts like nothing happened. I think that’s his equivalent of Paul Kersey doing the finger gun at the camera – the signal that he’s too far gone now to ever turn back. But the very end is more subtle – the park actually is neatened up and kids are playing in the snow. Only an ominous sting on the score (by Piero Piccioni, CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI) tells us it probly didn’t solve anything.

To me the most interesting part of the movie is when they think the guys who cut off Mom’s finger might be operating in “Ivanhoe Washington’s territory.” Turns out there’s this other guy who has “patrols,” played by Skerritt’s ALIEN co-star Yaphet Kotto right before he was in another vigilantism thriller, THE STAR CHAMBER. John is afraid to go talk to him and brings Les (I think you understand why).

Whatever his “patrols” are, Ivanhoe clearly has different goals than John. They talk in a theater where Ivanhoe is leading the rehearsal of an African dance performance. He says, “Let me tell you something. We got nothin in common. I’m a novelist and a community leader. You’re a shopkeeper and some kind of vigilante.” I can imagine a version of this where you’re supposed to laugh at Ivanhoe as an artsy fartsy do-nothing, but it’s Yaphet Kotto. His intensity knocks anybody else off the screen. You meet him and you wonder why this isn’t The Ivanhoe Washington Story.

When John tries to argue that they’re the same using the suspicious terminology “my people” and “your people,” Ivanhoe says, “You’re up in arms against the poor. I’m trying to help the poor.” Then he goes back to the rehearsal, so of course John throws a tantrum, gets on the stage and interrupts. When Ivanhoe accuses him of targeting Black people, he says “punks are punks” and “punks don’t have no color!” and when Ivanhoe tries to get him to leave John gets in his face yelling “You condone what happened to my mother? You condone what happened to my family?”

Yeah, yeah, that’s what he was saying. Of course, John. Some of this stuff is timeless. I like how Ivanhoe ignores him and he doesn’t know what to do. Can’t imagine how this could possibly be happening. Looks over to his Black friends for help. Good stuff.

Ivanhoe is only in one other scene, but it’s a good one. He summons John to a garage where he presents two guys he says attacked his mother. John at them, ignores the white guy, starts beating up the Black guy. They pull him off and tell him it was the white guy who cut off his mom’s finger. He failed the Pepsi Challenge. “Hey, Superman, go home!” Ivanhoe says. “You’re outta your element.”

After a tragic death, the commissioner decides to pull an Ed-Lauter-in-DEATH-WISH-3 and tells John that the bullets were traced to Eldorado, tacitly encouraging him to go kill them.  IMDb lists that as a “goof” since “in reality, bullets cannot be traced to people, but rather ballistics is used to match them up with certain guns. Even if the guns used were registered to these individuals, someone else could have used the guns to commit the murder.” But I don’t know, maybe the commissioner was just making up some bullshit to set D’Angelo off, and maybe D’Angelo didn’t stop to think or care if it was true, since what mattered to him was he gets to a kill a man. At no point was he like, “Well, it pains me to admit it, and it is with the heaviest of hearts, that I now realize I have absolutely no choice, no other valid way forward, than to decide that I get to kill a man.” That seems to be the #1 attraction to vigilantism when people really do it.

Being a Lewis Teague movie, this is well made and entertaining. It seems a little more serious than DEATH WISH about illustrating the dangers of vigilantism, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I think anybody that needs to learn a lesson here will side with John the entire time anyway, and the rest of us have to make due with less of the pulpy shit. It also opens somewhat pretentiously with Sledge Hammer himself, David Rasche, overseeing the editing of a montage of horrific real life violence for “The Killing of a Dream,” a special news report arguing that violence has gone up 563% since the JFK assassination, “That terrible November when violence went public in America’s living rooms.” I suppose part of the interesting irony is that the movie is exploiting violence in the guise of critiquing the media exploiting violence in the guise of critiquing society. Or something.

But it also recognizes that vigilantism is a genuine problem. The character of John D’Angelo seems to be inspired by a real guy named Anthony Imperiale, who’s mentioned and shown yelling like a madman in one of Rasche’s editing room scenes. Imperiale was also an Italian-American who started a “citizens group” and then turned that into a political career. He was openly racist enough that the first line of his obituary in the New York Times called him a “race-baiting Newark civic leader and politician.” The Baltimore Sun went with “political firebrand.” He was an ex-Marine and karate instructor who started walking around with a baseball bat and interrogating people after riots in 1967 sparked by police beating a Black cab driver unconscious for driving with a revoked license. I found a 1969 newspaper article about him running for mayor that describes him as “the controversial leader of a white vigilante group” and says he “formed his vigilante group to patrol white neighborhoods in Newark.” It notes that he “said policemen must use excessive force if necessary” and mentions that “a public statement he made as head of the North Ward Citizens Committee last year in which he referred to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King as ‘Martin Luther Coon’ caused considerable furor in the Negro neighborhoods.” I guess not elsewhere, though.

So I think there’s some truth in FIGHTING BACK. I think it’s even smart to make John less blatant than Imperiale because it really captures a guy who doesn’t recognize his own racism. But in this movie all the guys he actually hurts are shown to really deserve it, and are mostly white, despite Ivanhoe’s demonstration. And he blows up a pimp with a water balloon, you know? This genre is kinda stacked to make us root for that, even when it’s telling us it’s wrong. So you maybe they should’ve leaned into it and had more fun. Cannon sure figured that out quick.

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 1st, 2024 at 1:58 pm and is filed under Reviews, Action, Crime, Drama. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

6 Responses to “Fighting Back”

  1. Now continue with films whose titles start with “Fight”. I propose this one as the next entry: “Fight for your life”, from 1977.

    That film is just hilarious. It’s custom-made for today’s generations to make “shock memes” from its scenes and dialogue (and for the permanently insulted “smart” phoners to scream at in tiktok-shok). Sadly, its negative was destroyed in a flood before it could be blu-rayed. :\

    It also has the most democratic gang of evil criminals you’ll see, even better than those in “Warriors”. The gang consists of a racist Mexican supremacist thug, an evil White supremacist klansman-robber, and an evil Chinese supremacist pervert and murderer, and they’re ALL great friends and partners. It’s the funniest US exploitation film ever made.

    It’s even on Youtube in a DVD version now, hasn’t been deleted yet.


  2. I actually read about this movie yesterday while doing some research for DEATH WISH II for a Top 50 Bronson movies list I’m making, wondering if I had seen it. From Vern’s descriptions it turns out I haven’t. I do dislike the vigilante movies from the early to mid 80s intensely, and the DEATH WISH movies – except for #4 – especially. And it sounds like I won’t like this one either.

  3. After some more research it turns out I mistook this for the awful EYE OF THE TIGER. Can’t really explain why.

  4. We must be thinking about different EYE OF THE TIGERs. The one I’m thinking about climaxes with Yaphet Kotto throwing Molotov cocktails out of a Sopwith Camel while listening to James Brown. No way can a movie with that in it be considered awful.

  5. No self-respecting Philadelphian would call a hoagie a “hero.” Clear sign that Skerritt’s character is a villain.

  6. I’m almost on a daily basis accused of being to kind in my movie reviews. And if I like something enough to review it, I guess I can be perceived as too positive. So, as a friend of mine said once, if I dislike something it must be really crap. I don’t know how long it’s been since you saw EYE OF THE TIGER, Vince, but I saw it two weeks ago, and it’s definitely crap in my view. Had the climax been Kotto throwing Molotov cocktails out of a Sopwith Camel while listening to James Brown, it would have been the highlight of the movie. But it climaxes with Gary Busey fighting William Smith in the worst choreographed fight since a drunk Richard Burton threw karate punches in THE KLANSMAN, THEN Kotto appears and are greated by Busey as if he haven’t seen him in years, even if the talked 20 minutes ago back in town. But, by all means, don’t let me take away your happy experience…

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