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The 10 best-to-worst movie vigilante teams

LISTS - MOVIE LISTS

From the invincible to the very vincible...

Together they are unbeatable. But are they any fun?

The vigilante has been a mainstay in film for decades. Classic Hollywood westerns bestowed the lone ranger and the gun for hire with a mythic quality.

Recent films such as The Dark Knight and Taken have shown that the popularity of characters operating outside the confines of law and order remains intact. Last year, however, saw the release of several major films concerning a team of vigilantes, or a “vigilanteam” as I like to call them. The Losers (2010), The Expendables (2010) and The A-Team (2010) all portray a cast of characters who have been wronged and are out to get even. In essence these films are ensemble pieces, giving the audience a variation of characters to root for.

In the case of the new vigilanteams, nostalgia seems to be the buzz word. All three films contain a realism-defying sense of action bombast which recalls over-the-top eighties blockbusters. Furthermore, The Expendables and The A-Team both recall the high-concept era, the former with its cast of eighties stars and the latter in its attempt to reboot an eighties TV show.

This trend is set to continue with the release of two blockbuster heavyweights in 2012; The Expendables 2 and The Avengers. Therefore, keeping in line with this nostalgic take on the vengeful posse, here is a look at some of the best vigilanteams to tear up a film. Entries are judged on their influence, excellence and, as is the case with all vigilantes, entrants must also be badass.

10: Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954)

Akira Kurosawa’s action epic is the daddy of vigilante movies. Set in sixteenth-century Japan, the story is about a poor farming village forced to hire samurai as protection after years of harassment by bandits. The poverty-stricken farmers can only offer food in return for security. The seven men who accept the challenge are portrayed as aimless wanderers and initially do so as a means of entertainment. Their enemy, however, is an army of forty men. Under the leadership of elder Ronin Kambei Shimada, the crew of samurai turn the village into a deadly fortress.

Kurosawa films the ensuing battle without the aid of swordplay and fight choreography, bestowing the scenes with a ferocious realism. The film also contains a brilliant multifaceted performance by regular Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune as the outcast of the crew.

Influence:
Kurosawa’s action films have a wide-ranging influence on western cinema, none more so than Seven Samurai. It was later remade by John Sturges into the extremely popular western The Magnificent Seven and by Roger Corman as the SF outing Battle Beyond the Stars in 1981. George Lucas and Sergio Leone also cited Kurosawa as a major influence on their respective films, Star Wars and A Fistful of Dollars.

Badass Rating: 10

The crew covers a range of personalities, from the venerable Shimada to the youthful Kakushiro. In between there is the disciplined Kyuzo, and the loyal Gorobei. Furthermore these guys are fighting for food and as a means to kill time, which makes them a group of badass killers.

9: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

John Sturges' remake of Seven Samurai is a widescreen epic which foregoes the themes of class struggle illustrated by Kurosawa in favour of entertainment. Consequently the struggling farmers, now Mexican, are uninteresting, and the emphasis is placed firmly on the vigilantes. And what a team of vigilantes it is.

The all-star cast includes Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, all of whom are good in their respective roles. The villains are also given added prominence, if only to make the vigilantes seem more heroic. Therefore the showdown is built to epic proportions. Sturges does not disappoint, however, and the ensuing action is a joy to watch. This, along with Elmer Bernstein’s pounding score, makes Magnificent Seven an engaging if somewhat shallow film.

Influence:
Despite being a remake, Magnificent Seven still sits atop the pile of ensemble epics that are associated with classic Hollywood, only challenged by Sturges’ The Great Escape. It is also credited as the film which launched the then unknown McQueen's film career. Coburn, however, is the real scene-stealer here. Although he utters only eleven lines, he remains one of the coolest vigilantes ever committed to celluloid.

Badass rating: 8

Did you see that cast? These guys could kick your ass without breaking a sweat and steal your girlfriend while they're at it.

8: Munich (2005)

Munich (2005)

The Munich Massacre saw Israeli athletes murdered during the 1972 Olympics by a group of terrorists calling themselves Black September. Steven Spielberg’s Munich chronicles the Israeli government-backed black-ops mission to hunt down and kill all members of the terrorist cell.

An unorthodox team is assembled to carry out the mission, among them Eric Bana’s ex-Mossad agent Avner and Daniel Craig’s South African getaway driver Steve. The ensuing action leads them across Europe and to the Middle East.

Spielberg cranks up the tension in a number of the film’s brilliantly-staged assassination sequences as the team get to grips with the enormity of their task. Meanwhile the film’s elaborate espionage themes echo Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible. Unlike that film, however, Munich is gritty and often brutal. It suffers, though, from a lack of characterisation. The only fully-formed individual in the team is Avner, whose motivation and consequent disillusionment is eloquently portrayed. The film also skews the bigger issues at the heart of the tragedy and, much like the troubled protagonists at its core, ultimately feels confused.

Influence:
The secret dealings of Mossad and the Israeli secret service is a subject which is ripe for cinematic treatment. More films on the subject have not been made even though Mossad continue to make headlines with their high profile assassinations to this day.

Badass rating: 7.5

The men in the team aren’t killers and they certainly have a hard time eliminating their targets. They do, however, improve and it is this human side to the story which makes it a cut above some of the other overblown films on this list.

7: Uncommon Valor (1983)

Uncommon Valor (1983)

From Ted Kotcheff, the director of Rambo: First Blood, comes another over-the-top eighties action film.

Produced by John Milius, who makes another appearance on the list with Red Dawn, Uncommon Valor stars Gene Hackman as a Korean war veteran whose son has been proclaimed missing in action. Tired of waiting on stalled negotiations, Hackman decides to recruit a team of Vietnam veterans for a rescue operation. His men all bear their own emotional scars. Sailor is the eccentric hell's angel lookalike whose personality resembles that of Mifune’s character Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai. Meanwhile Blaster is the explosives expert and Wilkes, played by Fred Ward, is the close combat pro. Patrick Swayze also stars in one of his first prominent roles as the rookie of the crew.

The light-hearted training scenes are the best, showing both the group’s chemistry and comic timing. Although the dramatic scenes seem flat, Kotcheff is an experienced action filmmaker and the third act is crammed full of spectacular set-pieces.

Influence:
Rambo: First Blood Part II and the Missing in Action series starring Chuck Norris followed in the narrative footsteps of Uncommon Valor. They were subsequently more successful due to the popularity of their male leads.

Badass rating: 7.0

The scenario’s implausibility is a negative factor in this case. The seasoned veterans, however, cover a range of combat skills, making them a talented bunch of stalwarts. Plus Gene Hackman is the ultimate everyman tough guy.

6: The Expendables (2010)

The Expendables (2010)

The Expendables are hands down the best vigilanteam of recent years. The jaw-dropping cast includes a mix of old and new action stars, among them Jet Li, Jason Statham and Dolph Lundgren. The cameos and supporting cast are also high calibre, including Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and the former governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The plot concerns a team of mercenaries who take a job from a mysterious figure named Church (Bruce Willis). Their objective is to overthrow the dictatorship of a fictional South American country. The mission becomes personal when they encounter the dictator’s rebellious daughter, who is also fighting the military. The woman is taken hostage whilst under their guard and what follows is all-out warfare as the Expendables stop at nothing to restore justice.

The film beat off its competitors in the same year, among them The Losers and The A-Team, due to its respect for the over-the-top action film genre. To give credit where it is due, the film owes everything to the macho styling of its director and star Sylvester Stallone. Furthermore, its success at the box office proves that traditional action films are still in demand.

Influence:
The sequel is currently in the works and Sly has openly declared that he wants an even larger eighties man-love fest. The director is looking to recruit JCVD and Steven Seagal, among others. Now that the governator is unemployed, I’m sure he will be looking for a comeback vehicle too.

Badass rating: 7

If Jet Li doesn’t annihilate every enemy in sight, Stallone will most likely decapitate them. Plus it doesn’t hurt to have a UFC champion on your side in the form of Randy Couture. With Jason Statham and Terry Crews rounding off the team, you can bet your life that these bone-crunching heavies are a mean motley crew.

5: Defiance (2008)

Defiance (2008)

Set in Belarus during WWII, Defiance follows the plight of the October Otriad, a partisan detachment comprised of runaway Jews, led by Tuvia Bielski and his younger brothers. The film’s director, Edward Zwick, is no stranger to action-adventure epics; his past films include The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. Aside from the dodgy Polish accents by the three leads, played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell, the film also suffers from a burdened narrative. Zwick piles on themes of class struggle and also tries to introduce romantic interests for the Bielskis whilst concentrating on their conflicting personalities and inner turmoil. In the process the film collapses under the weight of its own grandeur. It’s a shame because it is an arresting true story which deserved cinematic treatment.

Influence:
Not much really. Probably one of Zwick’s worst, although he has been on a steady decline since the civil war epic Glory. Furthermore, with Defiance he took a brilliant tale of courage and turned it into a messy portrayal of sibling rivalry and useless machismo.

Badass rating: 6.5

Despite the mishandled tone of the film, the Bielskis are nonetheless badasses. Zus in particular is one mean mother who you do not want to mess with; he puts Eli Roth’s Bear Jew in Inglorious Basterds to shame. Furthermore, these three average guys turned a ragged bunch of frightened civilians into an army of resistance fighters. Finally, the fact that it’s based on a true story makes it all the more impressive.

4: Red Dawn (1984)

Red Dawn (1984)

This isn’t just revenge, this is war. America has been invaded by Soviet and Cuban communist forces. In a small midwestern town a group of teenagers escape into the mountains after witnessing the slaughter of their fellow students and teachers. The group adopt their high school football team’s name, calling themselves the Wolverines. They amount a large arsenal of weapons and become adept at tactical combat.

Red Dawn stars a who’s who of prominent eighties stars, including Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey and C. Thomas Howell. The unbelievable plot portrays an alternative reality in which America is left isolated against the communist threat. Its extreme right-wing themes give new meaning to the term rugged individualism. Director John Milius is clearly influenced by Sam Peckinpah, and copies his slow-motion techniques, but does not possess his flair for action. Furthermore, the film is let down by a weak script, with emphasis on the loss of innocence but hardly any character development.

Influence:
A cult curiosity which should be shelved next to other cold war eighties action films such as Rambo III and Rocky IV. Over time its influence has increased, and with a remake due out later this year, its popularity could possibly reach an all-time high.

Badass rating: 6

Yes, they are a bunch of kids waging war against a sophisticated enemy, but the film requires such a staggering suspension of belief that it’s hard to take seriously.

3. Watchmen (2009)

Watchmen (2009)

After several failed attempts by notable directors such as Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass, Zack Snyder finally brought the “unfilmable” graphic novel Watchmen to the screen in 2009 with mixed results. The story, set in an alternate eighties America, concerns a disbanded team of costumed vigilantes who find themselves mysteriously being attacked. Their subsequent investigations lead them to uncover a horrifying conspiracy.

The Watchmen are a group of vigilantes, including a number of individuals who have reprised the identities of a former crime-fighting team who operated in the fifties under the guise of the Minutemen. Although the Watchmen are a strong and agile bunch, they are also an emotionally fragile team of “real” heroes.

Snyder’s film was always going to be an ambitious project, but the truth is it ultimately falls short of doing justice to the groundbreaking source material. Once again the problem is style over substance, as Snyder overdoes it with the CGI and slow-mo action set pieces. The production design and costumes go a long way to nail the look of the comics, which is why the film received Watchmen illustrator Dave Gibbon’s blessing. The casting, however, is hit and miss and the film starts getting bogged down by the time of its bloated finale.

Influence:
Although it failed to light up the box office and received mixed reviews, the film hasn’t exactly ruined Snyder’s career. His fearlessness in the face of so-called troublesome material has obviously won him many friends in Hollywood. Among them Christopher Nolan, who personally selected Snyder to helm the Superman reboot.

Badass rating: 5.5

One can draw many parallels between the characters of the Watchmen and other superheroes, yet they are still a complex bunch of original characters. Their ultimate weapon is Dr Manhattan, a genetically enhanced god-like being with blue skin. His presence alone makes them invincible. However, their egos get in the way of their actions and a few of the members, including the Comedian and Rorschach, border on the psychotic. So not really the kind of people you want protecting innocents.

2: The Italian Job (2003)

The Italian Job (2003)

What separates this from the original and casts Charlie Crooker’s (Mark Wahlberg) gang of thieves as vigilantes is the revenge motif. Double crossed and left for dead by one of their own in Venice after a daring heist, Crooker and his gang reunite with the daughter of a dead team member in a bid to steal back their gold. The crew in this case is a mixed bag of performers. Mos Def is effortlessly cool, Seth Green is an annoying geek, Jason Statham is an unbelievable rock 'n' roll hard man and Charlize Theron is the eye candy. Meanwhile Mark Wahlberg comes across as the most nonchalant vigilante of all time. Edward Norton as the villain is as solid as ever, although his credibility would probably remain unscathed even in a Uwe Boll movie.

In its favour the film is a fast paced, entertaining action film which doesn’t take itself too seriously and respects the original source material.

Influence:
A sequel entitled The Brazilian Job has been in the pipeline for years but has faced numerous delays. Meanwhile a Bollywood version is also being produced. No doubt the glossy style of the remake suits the conventions of a Bollywood masala film.

Badass rating: 4

A good looking, stylish affair but hardly badass.

1: Bad Girls (1994)

Bad Girls (1994)

The only female posse on the list is represented by the beautiful women in Bad Girls. The film stars Madeleine Stowe, Drew Barrymore, Mary Stuart Masterson and Andie MacDowell as a group of prostitutes on the run in the Wild West who encounter bounty hunters and bandits in their quest for redemption. Despite the fact that it is one of the only films to portray women as the leads in an action western, it is without doubt one of the worst films on the list. Which is a shame, because there are so few all-female vigilanteams in cinema. The problem lies in the screenplay, which was redrafted several times in the run-up to the film’s troubled shoot. Before director Jonathan Kaplan was brought in by a worried studio, the film was originally being helmed by a female director, Tamara Davis. The subsequent re-writes and production problems led to outspoken criticism by the cast, in particular Barrymore.

Whether or not Tamara Davis would have done a better job is questionable, seeing as she has such a disparate filmography, including the stoner comedy Half Baked and the critically maligned Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads. Nonetheless, the completed film is an implausible tale of revenge with terrible characterisation. Overall, however, one can’t help but view Bad Girls as a missed opportunity to create a truly great revisionist western action film.

Influence:
Very little. Although female vigilanteams have cropped up here and there - the violent sex workers in Sin City spring to mind - they remain underrepresented in westerns.

Badass rating: 2

The women are all cardboard cut-outs with very little personality. There’s the stupid one, the feisty one, the leader and the innocent one. Furthermore we are given no clue as to how these women all became such brilliant shooters and riders.

 

See also:

Top 10 coolest gangs in film

Top 10 Movie Loners

Top 10 coolest professions (according to film and TV)

Lists at Shadowlocked


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Comments 

 
#1 RE: The 10 best-to-worst movie vigilante teams lenny 2011-03-26 00:06
I'm really surprised boondock saints didn't make this list.
I've never heard of uncommon valor, it sounds pretty awesome. Thanks for the recommendation.
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#2 Choices Saqib Shah 2011-03-26 01:09
Hi Lenny,

Thanks for reading. Uncommon Valour is a decent action flick which doesn't take itself too seriously.

In regard to Boondock Saints, although I haven't seen it I read it is about two guys and I dnt think that constitutes a team. The film's I referred to all involved a crew of people taking the law into their own hands.

However, there are many films about vigilantes and I am always interested to hear the suggestions readers have.
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#3 RE: The 10 best-to-worst movie vigilante teams jimmy agler 2011-04-10 02:23
are you kidding me? where is the first death wish movie?
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#4 RE: The 10 best-to-worst movie vigilante teams Saqib Shah 2011-05-13 09:10
Quoting jimmy agler:
are you kidding me? where is the first death wish movie?


Although Death Wish is an influential film in regards to vigilante justice it does not correspond to the list because it is about an individual not a team.
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