Death Wish (1974)--The granddaddy of all vigilante movies, this is stone-faced tough guy Charles Bronson at his best. When Bronson's wife and daughter are attacked by a gang of hoodlums (including a young Jeff Goldblum), Chuck becomes an unstoppable killing machine. Straying from the social-satire underpinnings of the original novel, director Michael Winner instead opts for a dark, gritty us-against-them aesthetic. Four sequels followed, three of which are unwatchable, and one of which is entertaining only in the strictest of exploitation-cinema standards.
Vigilante (1983)--Starting off with Fred Williamson prattling off the sort of crime statistics that would have the most devout pacifist reaching for the nearest .357, Vigilante is exploitation B-moviemaking at its finest. Robert Forster stars as an everyday working-class man pushed over the brink when his family is butchered by a sadistic gang. The hoodlums go free for their crimes, while he goes to jail for contempt of court. Once out of prison, Forster joins up with Williamson and his gang of blue-collar vigilantes, who wander the streets in a van, dispensing the sort of justice that can only be found with a lead pipe, baseball bat or large-caliber handgun. Director Bill Lustig crafts a stylish homage to the sleazy films that once graced the grindhouse theatres of New York's Times Square.
Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974)--It's a double dose of Pam Grier, the baddest babe to ever grace the silver screen, in this pair of cult classics from director Jack Hill. Both films are essentially the same, with Pam starring in Coffy as a nurse out to get the dope dealers who destroyed her sister's life, and in Foxy Brown as a broken-hearted woman out to destroy the gang that murdered her lover. Brimming with heads getting blasted off and castrations, Coffy and Foxy Brown are not for the faint of heart, as Grier blazes a deadly trail of retribution through both flicks.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003)--Arriving this week on home video, Quentin Tarantino's fourth film is a bloody, exhilarating pastiche of dozens of other movies and genres. Uma Thurman stars as a woman left for dead who sets out on a bloody mission of revenge to kill those who wronged her. With influences and homages to films many moviegoers have never even heard of, Kill Bill is the amalgam of vengeance films at their best.