Tommy (Jan-Michael Vincent) works on cargo ships for a living, or at least he did until he got into an altercation with one of his superiors on his latest job, and found himself with a punishment: he is banned from working at sea for six months. One official of his acquaintance tells him he can get another post if he behaves himself and with a lot of persuasion, but in the meantime he must stay where he last docked, New York City, and get an apartment there, which he does, though not having much money he cannot afford anywhere upmarket and the area he ends up in is rundown. That’s not all, for while there are plenty of decent locals there, they don’t feel they can stand up to the resident gang who terrorises them almost every day…
Although Defiance happened along at the time when the nineteen-eighties had well and truly arrived and a new type of action movie was making itself plain in the world’s cinemas, it was close enough to the seventies to be more of a character drama than an all-out shoot ‘em up or beat ‘em up. It owed more to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver than something Sylvester Stallone was going to make his mark in, though that was not to say there were no action sequences, it’s just that what there was, was more anchored in relying on the audience having made an emotional connection to the characters and wanting to see the goodies succeed against the baddies since we truly liked the underdogs.
In those later action flicks that would define the eighties, we were meant to look up to the hero because he was a maverick, man, who lived life on the edge and didn’t back down – oh, and had a whole artillery to back up his often lone crusade against the forces of evil. Contrast that with Vincent’s Tommy here, who can certainly handle himself in a fight but more often than not has no interest in getting involved with one, and it’s not this solo performer defying the gang, but becoming part of the community that needed to learn that apart they were not as strong as they were together, which was a message many social programmes would be trying to convey to the most crime-ridden regions of the inner cities.
That was another aspect that marked out Defiance as part of what had gone before rather than what was to come all too soon, the idea of a neighbourhood watch was not a very eighties concept when it came to the movies, that progressive banding together of the most beneficial members of the area, simply because the protagonists in those basically had to prove themselves far better than anyone else in the story. Tommy here is obviously heroic material, but he needs other people to enable him to reach his potential and stop the gang in their tracks, not that director John Flynn skimped on the two-fisted elements, and it did all build to a climax where everyone more or less had a massive punch-up to demonstrate the meeker folks were meek no more, they were taking back the streets.
Vincent was by this time winding down his movie career and about to star in small screen favourite Airwolf where he played second fiddle to a bunch of helicopter stunts, then after that his personal demons dominated and he pretty much disappeared from view. But this was no one man show, as he had some very decent support, with Theresa Saldana possibly the most notorious performer here when it was alleged her stalker had been prompted to attack her after watching Defiance; she played the love interest. Also recognisable were Danny Aiello (and his huge fish) and Art Carney as residents who try to gee everyone up into the act of the title, though arguably the scene stealer was Rudy Ramos as Angel, the ironically-named gang leader whose stare could intimidate the whole audience, never mind the characters, a very hissable villain among some fairly interchangeable punks of the variety familiar from movies like this. As a more socially conscious effort of the sort Death Wish 3 would be more celebrated for, this had its moments of unexpected sweetness and positivity when it could have been your basic NYC is a hellhole plot. Music by Dominic Frontiere.