June 6, 2011
Defiance (1980) is an early Jerry Bruckheimer production, back when he was interested in making gritty crime films like American Gigolo (1980) and Thief (1981). Unfortunately, Defiance was given a limited released where it promptly bombed at the box office and failed to connect with a mainstream audience, relegating it to late night cable television. MGM has recently resurrected the film and finally given it a DVD release with the Movies On Demand program.
Tom “Tommy” Gamble (Vincent) is a tough merchant seaman who finds himself suspended with a six-month stay in New York City until he can get another job at sea. Broke and bummed at having to spend all this time in a city he can’t stand the sight of, he walks the dirty streets to the strains of “Bad Times” by Gerard McMahon (one of seven he wrote and performed for the film), which tries to capture the blue collar aesthetic of Bruce Springsteen but to a funk beat. He’s closer to Eddie and the Cruisers (1983) than Springsteen, however. A bartender that Tommy knows hooks him up with an apartment to crash in and it has all the slummy allure of a cesspool.
He spends his spare time (of which he has plenty) learning Spanish in the hopes of getting a ship bound for Panama. Despite his best efforts to keep to himself, Tommy befriends his chatty neighbor upstairs, Marsha Bernstein (Saldana), his noisy next-door neighbor Carmine (Aiello), Abe (Carney), the savvy local shopkeeper, and a snotty-nosed street urchin (Lopez). This cozy collection of ethnic stereotypes are being harassed by a street gang populated by rejects who didn’t make the cut in The Warriors (1979) and led by the silent but deadly Angel Cruz (Ramos). Even though Tommy makes it clear that he wants to be left alone, the gang roughs him up (they take his art supplies!) and terrorizes the neighborhood (for kicks they throw bottles and cans at a street cleaning vehicle and disrupt a bingo game which is pretty innocuous on the deviant scale) until the merchant seaman reaches his breaking point and opens up a can of whoop-ass on these punks.
Defiance is the kind of urban revenge film that Cannon Films would have made in the 1980’s, probably starring Charles Bronson, complete with a xenophobic view of the big city. Instead we get Jan Michael Vincent, fresh from his iconic role in the Big Wednesday (1978). With his lean, chiseled features, he is well cast as the decent man who is pushed too close to the edge. As envisioned by the actor, Tommy is a tough guy but underneath is a real softy as the charm of the tenants in his building – in particular, Marsha and the kid – eventually break through his gruff exterior. Danny Aiello appears in an early role as a genial local bringing his own unique brand of charm to the role as only he can. Art Carney is slumming it as a stereotypical storeowner. Look closely and you’ll see Tony Sirico (Paulie from The Sopranos) in an early role and Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi from The Godfather) in small but memorable roles as respectable members of the neighborhood.
Director John Flynn orchestrates everything with his trademark no frills style that wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of Hill Street Blues. It is the kind of meat and potatoes filmmaking that is ideally suited for Defiance. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how the story is going to end but that’s neither here nor there. The purpose of this film is to tell a simple yet entertaining story.