Man, I don’t know what the fuck happened here, but this turned out to be a brutal let down. It has all kinds of killer ingredients for baking up a fulfilling tale of revenge set in urban New York. In fact, what makes it most disappointing is that it was helmed by director John Flynn, a man considered to be a luminary within the cinema of vengeance for his cult hit “Rolling Thunder.” This guy of all people knows how to make a movie like this work! After all, we've seen it, and it's one of the ultimate revenge movies! Though "Defiance" begins with a glimmer of promise, it never delivers that moment of excessive cruelty or violence that usually drives films of this nature. In fact, the stakes are pretty low here. You never really feel an unquenchable thirst for vengeance against the antagonists, mainly because they never get the opportunity to make your skin crawl. What actually might be the ultimate death of this movie is that it is so accessible. It is virtually a PG take on the revenge formula.
Jan-Michael Vincent stars as Tommy, a sailor who’s been forced into an extended leave due to a suspension they never bother to really bother to go into. In fact, they never really pierce the character’s mystique. Instead, we’re left to wonder what brought him to this point. Was he smuggling drugs? Did he rape another crew member? You just really never know much about the guy, which makes it difficult to get invested. He could have been a total dirtbag, which honestly would have given the story a little more weight had they gone in that direction. While this vague hardass waits out his punishment, he decides to move into a shitty neighborhood where the inhabitants are more or less forced to acclimate to his no-nonsense attitude. Eventually he meets a girl. Then he crosses a gang. You're probably thinking, "hey, I can do the math real easy on this one," but you'd be wrong. Though putting Tommy’s girlfriend in peril would have been the most logical way to kickstart this mess, the movie is too sensitive to “go there.” As alluded to before, “Defiance”’s primary ailment is that the bad guys never do anything that’s really that bad. Sure, there’s potential for bad things to occur, but the menace stops at mere suggestion. In fact, between the points where they rob a church bingo parlor and smash a roof top garden is when this thing careens into a ditch – and a really clean one at that.
"Ooooh! Jan Michael Vincent worked hard on that garden, you hooligans! He’s gonna get you!”
Even more unfortunate is that Rudy Ramos, who plays gang leader Angel Cruz, is probably the best thing about the movie. Not only does he look like a proto-“Parade” era Prince, but he’s an obvious heavy with built-in sympathy, which is a total waste since you never see him do anything really fucked up. There’s little point in going out of your way to humanize the villain if you’re not going to make the audience feel conflicted about connecting with them.
The majority of the movie feels like total filler, with the gang being jerks and the neighborhood beckoning Tommy to join their ranks and fight back. Tommy eventually decides to join their effort after a fairly minor character is murdered off screen by the villains. You get the feeling that the writers were into the idea of that feel-good moment at the end where evil is usurped, but they didn’t want to commit to depicting the sort of rousing nastiness that’s so germane to the payoff they wanted. They knew where they wanted to get to, but they took a really shitty, in-direct, and overly-long way to get there.
The second best thing about this movie is probably Danny Aiello, who plays Carmine. Now older and pot-bellied, Carmine spends most of his time with his cronies at a local watering hole reminiscing about how they used to run the streets. What’s interesting is that these old-school gang bangers really resent the new youth gangs even though they probably weren’t dissimilar to them. Conceptually, the idea of an overweight Aiello stretching out his “Lords of Flatbush” jacket coming out of retirement to teach these new punks a lesson is pure gold. This arc should have been the film’s main focus. Instead, too much time is spent on some limp-dick romance that doesn’t really drive the story anywhere.
There are fine points that could have been expanded upon, making this even more of a bummer. Some say this is a film with heart, but that’s only a misnomer for softness. The tender moments are meaningless due to the astonishing lack of grit, as they are too constant and with little contrast. Glimmers of happiness and soul in the ghetto have more meaning when the dire reality of the environment is given more punch. Instead, this feels like an attempted inner-city “Waltons” with some melodramatic moments that veer into unintentional chuckles. Overall, this was a waste of time for a lot of great actors, including Art Carney, who is basically relegated to playing “old Jewish guy who gets beat up.” This is easily the palest revenge flick of all time.