Vigilantes in the 21st Century

Part 2 – When Your Average Joe turns Vigilante.

Following in the wake of the Savillegate and Rotherham child-sex-abuse scandals in the UK, it’s transpired that some police forces, with mass scandals like those to deal with, have “almost given up” on investigating certain lesser crimes, such as theft from cars and criminal damage, and are asking the victims – ordinary citizens – to pick up the burden of such investigations themselves. See:
This has led the Telegraph to coin the phrase “DIY detectives”.
smashing car

Don't ask what that is.

Don’t ask what that is.

All well and good – funding is tight and we should, as citizens, take some responsibility for maybe not leaving valuables in our cars, particularly if the car’s not alarmed, and for keeping an eye out for anything suspect in our own neighbourhoods. But neighbourhood watch schemes are nothing new, and writing off a whole section of crimes immediately begs the question, what kind of message exactly is this sending to criminals? To those who’d sooner nick your stereo than say ‘Hello matey’.
Having worked in prisons for many years, I can offer the reassurance that most criminals do not want to hurt you; yes, there’s all that bravado, but the majority have grown up with very little materially and generally speaking they just want an easy life like the rest of us, which always comes down to money. Like your average law abiding citizen, some criminals are happy with just enough to live on, while others, like your average law-abiding financier (or have you seen The Wolf of Wall-Street?), want a big phat car, class dames and designer drugs.
snorting coke
And criminals are actually very innovative when it comes to getting what they want, for instance adapting to cyber-crime at an almost parallel speed with legal technological advances.
identity theft
But one thing all criminals have in common is that they are opportunists. If the message is ‘the law is no longer bothering to police theft from cars and criminal damage’ then one thing we are guaranteed is that theft from cars and criminal damage will rise. And this isn’t just about certain offenses being shoved to the bottom of the crime pile, it’s about those offenses slipping from the police consciousness to the extent that they are actually deemed as decriminalised.
And with a sense of lawlessness comes the additional risk from that small minority of criminals who do want to hurt people, who take pleasure in it, and will take advantage of any level of lawlessness in their own nasty ways. Many serial rapists, for instance, are known to have started off as burglars.
A global recession has no doubt contributed to the current climate of fear and vulnerability. I started to write Melt, a vigilante horror novel, at the height of the recession, tapping into the public consciousness and ‘climate of fear’ that is exacerbated by funding cuts to essential services; particularly highlighting the outrage that people feel at being left to the mob. Thus, the novel is set on a troubled council estate where gang-rule, drugs and the prostitution of victims is what the protagonists have to deal with day-to-day. Acquired supernatural powers bring both a blessing and a curse to them.
dark angel
So how would you deal with society’s problems, if you had the power? If you could write a book or make a film reflecting the current climate creatively, what would your protagonist be? A two headed beast with a taste for the blood of miscreants? Or just your ordinary Joe or Josephine on the streets?
In the last episode we looked at mysterious strangers and superheroes acting as vigilantes, tackling lawlessness and tyranny to different degrees and with varying levels of brutality.
Vigilantes of film and game are definitely getting tougher and more merciless in their dealings with the bad guy. In the 2009 Law Abiding Citizen, Gerard Butler’s character breaks out of prison on multiple occasions to carry on his vendetta, not only against those who wronged his family, but the corrupt criminal justice system that let them go.
Law abiding citizen
This is the difference between an avenger and a vigilante – with your Average Joe vigilante, it’s personal.
We have to go back to the 20th century, most prominently to the 1970s, to see where this genre really took root.
In 1972 Bruce Lee as Cheng, a manual worker in an ice factory, avenges his ever diminishing family by wiping out the drugs gang using the factory as cover for their operations. The film was Big Boss. And yes, you’re right; he wasn’t so big by the end. The film, of course, launched Lee to stardom.
Bruce lee
But perhaps one of the most convincing portrayals of a vigilante came shortly afterwards in 1974 in the film Death Wish. Any ‘top 10 vigilante movie’ lists will have this and its sequels close to or at the top. See:
death wish
Loosely based on the book Death Wish by Brian Garfield, the story is of an Average Joe, Paul Kelsey who, distraught after the murder of his wife and sexual assault of his daughter, turns anti-hero, cleaning up the streets with several rounds of sharp shooting (and yes, Bronson, traditionally as rugged and expressionless as a mug-shot, does pull it off). The film achieves what a good vigilante movie should, in that, by the time this fellow gets going, it’s the bad guy you begin to fear for.
“You lookin’ at me?” is the much-mimicked and unforgettable line from a timeless classic by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro. Taxi Driver might have been released in 1976 but the dark and at times uncomfortably weird character of Travis Bickle reminds us of the potential for carnage in all of us. This one breaks the mold because it’s not about the death of a character’s family, but a kind of war on sleaze by a lonely impotent man. Globally acknowledged as one of the greatest films of all time, if you haven’t seen it, put it on your bucket list now.
Taxi driver
I’ll end part 2 with Dead Man’s Shoes. Here we’re back in the 21st century with the producer Shane Meadows, one of Britain’s finest in the last two decades, co-written and starring Paddy Considine as the cold and calculating soldier home on leave, to avenge the sexual assault of his mentally disabled young brother.
dead man's shoes
The 2004 film embraces the vigilante theme wholeheartedly, but with an added twist. Another must-see.
Sorry if I’ve missed your favourite, but there’s more to come. Next time we’ll meet the ladies with a bone to pick – cover your nuts boys – and what happens when the law itself, or elements within it, turn vigilante.
angel free 3
COMING SOON – MELT, the novel: ‘Desecrating an ancient graveyard can unearth enough trouble to shake up the world.’
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