Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Kelly Dolen
Stars: Jamie Bamber, Lachy Hulme, Ditch Davey, Daniel Lissing, Sam Parsonon, Harry Pavlidis, Brendan Clearkin, Brian Wenzel.
There have been a lot of films in which a vigilante, disillusioned by the ineffectual legal system and a police force seemingly unable to control the streets, takes the law into his own hands to reclaim our violent cities. Films like these play to our innate sense of justice and fairness, and also to our prejudices.
The genre briefly gave Charles Bronson a renewed career boost with his increasingly violent and ludicrous Death Wish franchise, and there have been numerous other variations on the theme with exploitation films like Walking Tall, The Punisher, Kevin Bacon’s Death Sentence, John Schlesinger’s An Eye For An Eye, and even Oscar winner Jodie Foster put a more feminist spin on the genre with The Brave One. And even the recent remake of 80s tv series The Equalizer turned the central character into a vigilante of sorts.
And now this low budget but visceral, edgy and gritty Australian film tackles the genre with mixed results. John Doe: Vigilante is a confrontational film that will also certainly divide audiences. Many will appalled by its attitude that seemingly glorifies the very violence it depicts, and its implicit message that it is okay to take the law into your own hands.
But director Kelly Dolen and co-writer Stephen M Coates (the short films Colour Blind and Snap) tackle some important themes along the way, including the mass media and how the news services sensationalise and manipulate such incidents, the dysfunctional legal system with its soft sentencing, and the complex theme of vengeance versus justice. There is a moral ambiguity to the film that is ultimately troubling. And while it has been shot in and around the streets of Melbourne, its themes have broader appeal and will resonate with international audiences as well.
Jamie Bamber (from Law & Order:UK, Battlestar Galactica, Hornblower, etc) plays the titular vigilante here, a seemingly normal man driven by grief and desperation to start ridding the streets of serial murderers, rapists and paedophiles. He may well be a sophisticated and intelligent killer, but the fact that his character revels in torturing his victims before he kills them will turn some people off. He soon inspires a series of copy cat vigilantes, and his eventual trial turns into a media circus. A vigilante group called Speak For The Dead also emerges and supports John Doe’s actions and they too take the law into their own hands.
While incarcerated and on trial for 33 murders, John Doe asks for veteran crime reporter Ken Rutherford (Lachy Hulme, from Offspring, Howzat, etc) and promises him an exclusive interview. We follow Rutherford’s efforts also as he pieces together a profile of John Doe and his activities. But Doe has another reason for seeking out Rutherford.
This is the most ambitious film to date from Dolen, a low budget filmmaker who has made a couple of little seen horror films like The Gates Of Hell, etc. His direction is brutally efficient, but the film is also a little uneven tonally and its plotting a little murky at times. Dolen has worked with veteran cinematographer David Parker (Malcolm, etc) on the look and tone of the film, and there are some visual flourishes and he shoots many of John Doe’s reprisal attacks from his point of view, as he films himself taking down his victims, somehow making us seem complicit in the acts of violence.
Bamber makes his anti-hero character more complex and complicated than one would expect. However, while we get a bit of his backstory that is supposed to make us feel more sympathetic and empathetic towards his actions, we still don’t get enough information to understand his transformation from loving and decent family man into this violent vigilante. Hulme brings an arrogance and cocky nature to his journalist that makes him inherently unlikeable from the outset. The supporting cast includes television veterans like Ditch Davey (from Blue Heelers, etc) and Brian Wenzel (from A Country Practice, etc) in smaller roles.
Dolen has a take no prisoners approach to the material, and a couple of brutal murder scenes are quite intense. But the limitations of the budget are obvious sometimes with the staging of some scenes, and there is an explosion that looks decidedly underwhelming and fake. The narrative doesn’t follow a conventional straight forward path, as much of it unfolds in a series of lengthy flashback sequences that occasionally add a disjointed feel to the material. And the use of handheld cameras gives the material a sense of immediacy.