Defiance (John Flynn, 1980)

‘Defiance’ (John Flynn, 1980)

Fans of the Sergio Leone epic Spaghetti Western “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” will immediately recognise the following quote:
“There are two kind of people in this world my friend – those who like Blue Thunder, and those who like Airwolf”.

Growing up, I was an Airwolf child through and through. I used to run around the playground blowing cold breath out in front of me pretending I was Airwolf banking through the clouds at high speed.

I’ll begrudgingly concede that Blue Thunder was ok, but Airwolf had my vote (why was it called Airwolf and not ‘Airshark’? – the machine looks just like a shark from below). In fact, I don’t think I could knowingly have sexual relations with anyone who preferred Blue Thunder over Airwolf. (This is not an open invitation for Blue Thunder fans reading this to slip me a Rohypnol).

jmv_batThe success was in no small part to Jan Michael Vincent. Stringfellow Hawke was damn near the coolest man alive. I distinctly remember squinting my eyes to emulate his expression when conversing with my fellow prisoners at school.

As I grew older I checked out more of his back catalogue before his decent into alcoholism robbed him (and us) of a further career. His collaborations with Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds are the standouts (and worth film session entries) – ‘The Mechanic’ and “Hooper’ respectively. ‘Big Wednesday’ deserves a mention for being both a superb film and a great performance.

Jan Michael Vincent had entered the Vigilante sub-genre before, with ‘Vigilante Force’ in 1976 – but he went back for more in 1980 with “Defiance”. It’s the story of a merchant seaman (you can tell he is a sailor because he has an anchor-shaped hatstand and paints pictures of boats), named Tommy Gamble, who is suspended from duty and must wait ashore until he gets permission to go back to sea. A local bartender gives him details of a cheap rental building in New York he can rest up in until he gets his call. Once in the neighbourhood, he quickly realises the locals are living under the control of a gang called the “Souls”, ruling the neighbourhood through fear.

Tommy is just trying to keep his head low and not get involved, but the gang have infiltrated daily life in the community and prove unavoidable.

churchWhist watching the film, I was reminded strongly of “Death Wish 3” – another ‘community under attack’ vigilante film. It comes close in terms of the cartoonish nature of it – the gang are helpfully made up of a Benetton-advert cast of races and creeds – the main bad guy dresses like Zorro, and they all seem to live in a big dirty commune (as with Death Wish 3’s gang). There seems to be about 20+ members – and they are not messing about: they gladly stab and shoot people when they feel like it, but their ambitions are a little low – at one point the whole gang descends on a Church hall Bingo session to steal the takings. You’ve got over 20 members with guns and getaway cars, and you decide to rob Bingo in probably the poorest neighbourhood in New York? You need a new leader. Preferably one who doesn’t wear frilly billowing red shirts and 1920’s villain make-up.

Under better leadership, I think a few of the gang would be feeling the heat come appraisal time – at a pivotal stage in the film, they break into Jan Michael Vincent’s apartment to wreak havoc while he is out. Well, I thought that was the plan – but as the door breaks inwards and gang members stream in – the only slightly criminal activity I witnessed was one flamboyant individual grabbing a sofa cushion and running into the other room with it, whilst his nearest compatriot skipped in behind him spraying shaving cream onto the carpet and a little bit of the living room wall. I couldn’t see what the others were doing, but I expect it was something equally heinous like switching dry roasted for salty in Jan’s nut stash.

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They do manage to get it together for long enough to beat the crap out Tommy in a subway toilet., in revenge for cutting one of their numbers’ ponytail off (since when has that been a bad thing? Even Michael Bolton eventually came round). They leave him for dead, not before stealing the watercolour paint set he had just purchased. Inexplicably, they leave the selection of acrylics on the ground, choosing one painting medium over another in the heat of battle. I just can’t understand the criminal mind sometimes.

The most interesting part of the film for me is the realisation that Jan Michael Vincent’s character ‘Tommy’ is a bit of an arsehole. Not in any kind of overt way, just that he really doesn’t give a toss about anyone. On his first day in the flat, his attractive female neighbour invites herself in for a chat (walks straight in off the fire escape despite the pair never meeting). As she recounts her life story, Tommy quietly goes into his bedroom and shuts the door. It’s quite a surprising moment. All Tommy wants is to get back on a ship and get off land. The vigilante always tends to keep his head down at first, but the difference here is he just doesn’t give two shits about anyone or their stories. Maybe this is the most realistic portrayal of the ‘everyman’ yet – as I can understand that point of view easily. If you had written this article, I wouldn’t be reading it, you can be sure of that. I’m an everyman.

His obsession with landing a new boat makes for a few surprising moments that may stir you from a 3am film session slumber – mostly due to Jan Michael Vincent’s inability to pronounce ‘ship’ properly. So you’ll regularly witness pedestrian dialogue scenes punctuated suddenly with such exclamations as “I need a shit Marsha”, “I’m waiting for a shit” and “I’m leaving, I gotta shit”. (If you can put 2 and 2 together I’ve just dropped a spoiler on you).

I’ll do you a favour and let you know right now that Jan Michael Vincent is not playing the Ambassador to Peurto Rico. The next door neighbour kid calls him ‘Ambassador’ all the time, as Vincent claimed to hold that role when quizzed why he was repeating lines of Spanish. I was lucky enough to catch this fact. Sleepy watchers may miss it and think the film is more “Coming To America” then “Death Wish”.

One mystery I can’t help you with is who this kid belongs to. He hangs around with an old Italian ex-boxer  (played by Luca Brassi from ‘The Godfather’)- slightly slow presumably due to his former career. My eyes narrowed during a scene when the boxer is lying in bed listening to a fight on the wireless, the camera pulls back to reveal the child sitting next to him on the bed in his underpants. Hmmm. Luca Brassi sleeps with the fishes, and underage street urchins too it seems.

The music is foul. It’s soft-rocking disco tracks – which almost reach Frank Stallone-levels of awfulness. I don’t want to comment further on this. I feel dirty.

It’s not a bad film, it just feels very forced. The neighbourhood doesn’t seem particularly marooned like the one in Death Wish 3 does – it’s in the heart of the city where the police just wouldn’t put up with that shit. The story is incredibly predictable, offering no surprises. And the only co-star of interest is Danny Aiello. And I’m stretching a bit saying he is ‘of interest’. The director is John Flynn, who has quite a few decent films under his belt – “The Outfit”, “Rolling Thunder”, “Out for Justice”. He shows little of the class on show in “Rolling Thunder” here.

Worth a watch, but put it a little further down your list than the likes of “Walking Tall” and “Vigilante”.

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