Breaking the law in defense of the law is silly! Vigilante justice isn’t justice at all. Who makes the rules when they’re aren’t any rules? Who says where the line gets drawn? …Let me lay this out for you clear and simple. Nobody’s above the law, just like always, nobody. Robert Culp as Lt. Frank Mason
Who among us has not been tempted to go ahead and run into the bad driver who cuts you off? If you remember, in the 80s, vigilantes were a hot topic because of the Bernard Goetz “Subway Vigilante” case, and many people were on Goetz’s side. Well, in this movie, some asshole in a ’69 Dodge Charger takes it too far when he starts chasing down other drivers for real or perceived slights on the road and then murdering them with his car. One carload of hot chicks even signed their own death warrants simply by hitting on him while both cars were stopped!
The murdering vigilante makes the mistake of killing 15 year old student driver Jeff (Brian Robbins) for the crime of speeding up when he comes to a yellow light. Jeff’s big brother Rick (Ken Wahl) was in the passenger seat and, because he can’t get the cops to believe they were targeted by the Charger, dangerous and grumpy loner/mechanic Rick fires up a Chevy truck customizing montage and goes out looking for the Charger and any other drunk and reckless drivers. It’s an all out war of vigilante versus vigilante on the L.A. streets!
Because The Gladiator is directed by Abel Ferrara, this goes beyond calling attention to the drunk driving issue and right on into exploitation lite. I think he would have liked to have set this in New York, but apparently nobody drives there, so the working-class streets of L.A. were good enough. Although he’s working in the TV medium, Ferrara’s trademark gritty style shows through. I would have liked to see this as an R movie, but it’s pretty good as is. Also, I’ll go ahead and say The Gladiator is probably an influence on Death Proof, but much more enjoyable in my opinion.
There’s lots of unpleasant and unglamorous characters, crazy talk radio callers, the streets are always wet, there seems to be a filter that makes both the streetlights and the neon lights seem dimmer, and the drunk drivers go way beyond your regular good time Charlies to drag racing while passing beers back and forth between open windows and picking fights at a drive-in restaurant. Also,when Rick is driving around thinking about becoming the Gladiator, Krokus’s “Screaming in the Night” is playing, and that’s a song that always gives me a chill because the video disturbed me when I was a kid.
There’s an excellent supporting cast including Nancy Allen as a radio personality, Rick Dees as not a a radio personality but a sleazy car salesman, Stan Shaw as Rick’s best friend, and the king of the TV movie, Robert Culp, as a tough detective (Lt. Mason, as in STONE). Relatively easy to find on VHS, this one is highly recommended for fans of Ferrara, Wahl, car chases, cheese, and revenge. It really feels more like a straight-to-video sleeper than a TV movie, which in this case is a good thing.
Here’s a new movie rule: if you’re in an action drama, and you are raising your beloved younger sibling, lil’ bro or sis is not long for this world. Sorry.
Also, since I’m half-assed keeping track, the movie marquee I could read in this one shows 1962’s El Extra starring Cantinflas.