Oil has been discovered local to this American smalltown and as a result, the bars there have been filled with opportunist workers who have arrived to make their fortune, or so they hope. The other result is that the streets are overrun with brawlers and hooligans, who have made it not a safe place to live, especially compared to before when it was a quiet, rural location whose sheriff (Judson Pratt) was able to control it with just a few deputies. However, when one of those deputies is gunned down in broad daylight, it's clear enough is enough and a suggestion by mechanic Ben Arnold (Jan-Michael Vincent) is paid heed: get his brother Aaron (Kris Kristofferson) to sort things out.
Aaron and his collective being the vigilantes of the title who are welcomed into town and proceed to use strongarm tactics to clamp down on the rowdies. You can see where this going from the nanosecond that Ben suggests it, as the Sheriff is such a nice guy (i.e. walkover) that there's no way he is going to control these ex-Vietnam War vets, and thus a metaphor was born. Veterans were getting a rough deal in the movies, as the highest profile example was Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver which more or less cemented the concept of them as psychologically damaged and liable to fly off the handle at the drop of a hat, often with violent consequences.
It would take until 1978 and Coming Home for a more sympathetic portrayal of those mentally and physically harmed by the conflict and their experiences, though The Deer Hunter eclipsed it and reinforced all those freshly minted clichés that veterans were seriously messed up, either a danger to themselves or others, or both, for that matter. Kristofferson comes across like a decent enough cove at the beginning, a bit of a rebel of course but with his heart in the right place, yet by the grand finale he has littered the town with bodies and stolen a fortune, leaving him nowhere to go but the full James Cagney in White Heat; Aaron may be more presentable, but don't be fooled.
This was the creation of writer and director George Armitage, who saw his career temporarily derailed when Vigilante Force flopped - it would take till 1990's Miami Blues and later, 1997's Grosse Point Blank for him to get back on track, and by then it was too late for him to establish himself as anything but a cult curio with film buffs wondering what he might have achieved with more opportunities under his belt. Here he viewed the situation of men paid to be violent by the Government returning home to find they had a real taste for bloodshed as some form of American statement, all dressed up in a hicksploitation actioner. According to this, it was a nation dead set on self-destruction, almost willingly if not consciously, thanks to a culture of violence both official and illegal.
Kristofferson and Vincent led this as brothers on opposite sides of the law, but equally happy to use guns or their fists to secure the order they wanted in the town. They were each given love interests, Ben with vanilla wife Victoria Principal (about to win worldwide fame in television supersoap Dallas), and Aaron with bar singer Bernadette Peters, quirking it up around the place, though both were appealing in their way, and naturally both were sidelined once the action began. Filling out the cast were a collection of mostly familiar character actor types of a middle-aged look, and as this was a Gene Corman-produced film of course Dick Miller had a cameo, garnering one of the biggest laughs with just one expression. In truth, Vigilante Force failed to live up to its premise, dwindling into a lot of running, shooting and explosions, but for a while its eccentric take on the action movie as modern Western was at least promising. It was nearly a very good film. Music by Gerald Fried (lots of country, too).