Vigilantes are a fascinating trope of cinema and entertainment in general. Seeing someone take the law into their own hands can make for a fun and immersive experience at the best of times but without a great character to embrace these stories would be a lot harder to enjoy. With the sequel film “The Equalizer II” released this weekend I wanted to put the focus on the best characters in movies that took the law into their own hands and deal out justice their own way in their respective films or franchises. These are my picks for the Top 10 Movie Vigilantes.
For this list I looked at characters who are normal human beings who happen to be skilled enough and/or angry enough to take the law into their own hands. Superheroes of any kind were not considered even if they act above the law in their battles so Batman, Kick-Ass and others will have to wait for their own list. However antiheroes without special abilities were considered even if their origins were in the comics.
In order to be considered a vigilante these characters had to go above and beyond the law meaning their actions are technically illegal as they seek justice their own way for whatever reason. People who are put in situations where they’re forced to be the hero, such as the likes of John McClain, don’t count. These are people who made a choice to do what they felt they needed to do.
Who are your favorite movie vigilantes? Let me know in the comments below and look for my review of “The Equalizer II” coming soon. On with the list!
10. Bryan Mills, the “Taken” Trilogy
Let’s start with a true badass with a particular set of skills. Bryan Mills is the character that made Liam Neeson an action staple in 2008’s iconic “Taken”, a film that spawned two sequels and a television series. A retired CIA field agent, Mills comes out of retirement after his daughter is kidnapped in France by a group who specializes in sexual slaves. Mills goes on the warpath through France killing anyone in his way even going so far as to threaten a former colleague and French intelligence agent to show his desperation. Mills does what the authorities claim to be impossible as he hunts down his daughter and saves her life and while the sequel puts Mills on the receiving end of a revenge plot the third film once again turns him into a vigilante looking to clear his name. Regardless of which entry in this action saga you choose to embrace Mills goes against the grain and above the law to get the job done.
9. The Driver, “Drive”
Ryan Goslings Driver has no given name in the 2011 film “Drive”, but he became a memorable movie vigilante all the same as he takes his job very seriously. A stunt-man by day, the Driver acts as a getaway driver by night and after falling for his neighbor finds himself involved in a theft that puts his safety, and the safety of his neighbor and her child, in danger. The Driver takes things to the next level by hunting down and taking revenge on those who set him up showing an interesting mix of tact and brutality as he seems to have no qualms with killing despite showing compassion for his victims. While he initially defies the law to help criminals he also defies it to take his revenge and doesn’t even bother allowing the authorities an opportunity to help him. How could he when he himself is technically a criminal? The Driver would rather do it himself and it’s hard not to appreciate his determination, confidence and skill as he tortures and/or kills those threatening him or those he cares.
8. Erica Bain, “The Brave One”
The only female vigilante on this list, Jodie Foster turned in one of her best and most underrated performances in recent memory in 2007’s “The Brave One”. As Erica Bain Foster gives us a staple of modern cinematic feminism as a radio host who becomes a vigilante after a group of thugs beat her and kill her husband. Afraid for her life, Bain does what you’d expect and purchases a gun while also embracing a more hardened personality that leads her to take on the crime of her city head on. Bain is an example of a classic movie vigilante, but the fact that she’s a woman adds a nice nuance to her character considering its usually strong-willed men who earn the vigilante title. Seeing the law and ineffective Bain find a type of peace in avenging her husband’s death by cleaning up the streets on her own but she also shows signs of PTSD as her personal experiences also impact her confidence and clarity in her actions. She might a derivative character, but Erica Bain is a worthy vigilante badass nonetheless.
7. Robert McCall, “The Equalizer”
This isn’t the last time you’ll see Denzel Washington on this list. The actor has proven his capabilities playing a cinematic badass in the past but this character from the 2014 action thriller “The Equalizer” is one of his best. Robert McCall is a mysterious man who works at a home improvement store and has left his CIA past behind. A former black ops operative, McCall violates a promise made to his late wife to leave his violence in his past when a young woman he meets at a diner is sent to the hospital by members of the Russian Mafia. McCall embraces his abilities, going beyond the limits of the law by killing members of the mafia with astounding precision and over the course of the film proves to be a ruthless, calculating killer who takes no prisoners. Possibly one of the most capable combatants on this entire list, McCall decides to use his abilities for good to “equalize” the playing field of the world around him as a defender of those who have been left behind by the law. It should be fun to see him go at it again in this weekend’s sequel.
6. Connor and Murphy MacManus, “The Boondock Saints”
The main characters in the 1999 cult classic “The Boondock Saints” and its subpar 2009 sequel, Connor and Murphy MacManus are among the most iconic of modern movie vigilantes. After experiencing an epiphany in the wake of their own killing of Russian Mafia members in self-defense these brothers of Irish decent join with their friend to rid the city of Boston of evil all the while being pursued by an FBI agent. Their Irish heritage and the use of cultural symbols helped inspire cultural appropriation from countless fans for years and their motto, “Veritas Aequitas” which stands for verity and equity or truth and justice in Latin, helps further drive home their moral cause for taking the law into their own hands. The brothers also incorporate a family prayer into their acts which speaks to their perspective that they are doing God’s work by destroying the evil corrupting the world. While the two brothers don’t always see eye to eye, Connor being more focused and careful and Murphy being more emotional and tends to act before thinking, they balance each other out in the end creating a pair of righteous killers still celebrated by throngs of fans even almost 20 years later.
5. V, “V for Vendetta”
A masked vigilante, V is more calculating and patient than many on this list but he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. The central character of the 2005 adaptation of the DC comic “V for Vendetta”, V is an anarchist with a mysterious past seeking revenge against the politicians in control of a dystopian United Kingdom. V doesn’t simply go out every night and fight crime however. While he does take the time to utilize his skills to rid the streets of the corrupt authority, his vigilantism involves a more long-term plan to turn society against those who have corrupted it evoking the actions of Guy Fawkes whose mask he wears as his own symbol of justice. V’s anti-government sentiment and his willingness to fight for those oppressed by the society around them has led to the Guy Fawkes mask becoming a symbol in modern society including an item now most associated with the hacktivist group Anonymous, who if you ask some people embrace a mission not much different from V’s. He may not be a traditional vigilante, but V’s calculating and precise approach to his unique brand of justice have made him an icon as a different kind of truth fighter who goes above the laws he feels are not in the interest of the people.
4. Paul Kersey, “Death Wish”
There’s no way I could have a vigilante list without a guy like this. While we did get a remake of “Death Wish” this year with a modernized version of the character, it’s the classic Paul Kersey that Charles Bronson made famous who earns the nod here. The entire “Death Wish” series is often criticized for romanticizing vigilantism and Kersey is at the center of it all as a husband and father who takes the law into his own hands after his wife is murdered and daughter assaulted during a home invasion. It takes his own encounter with a mugger to fully push him over the edge. What makes Kersey such a complex character is that before his family was assaulted he was a conscious objector against the Korean War and was taught by his mother to denounce weapons. Kersey embraces a whole new personality when he realizes the law enforcers around him aren’t doing enough to stop the crime littering the streets. Kersey may have his flaws and his transformation may not be as subtle as it should be, but the depth of his character challenges almost any other vigilante on this list and was built around the idea that any man can be inspired to take matters into their own hands with the right kind of push.
3. John Creasy, “Man on Fire”
Denzel Washington is just great at playing these kinds of characters, isn’t he? John Creasy is a mercenary and former CIA operative in 2004’s “Man of Fire” who becomes the bodyguard for a nine-year-old girl named Lupita who he bonds with in the film. After Lupita is kidnapped and Creasy shot, Creasy goes on the warpath when he realizes the police are in on the kidnapping of his charge. Injured and on the brink of death, Creasy puts everything on the line to get his revenge taking no prisoners as he utilizes everything in his personal arsenal, both weapons and physical skills, to torture and kill anyone involved in the kidnapping. As a ruthless and capable killer devoted to his mission Creasy is a true force to be reckoned but in the end he’s also a man with a heart. He sacrifices himself to save Lupita and it’s implied he willingly allows himself to die in the hands of his enemies in order to complete his mission. Creasy is a layered vigilante who finds new purpose in his solo crusade to rescue his charge displaying not only a controlled mind in combat, but also an understanding of what it will take to claim victory and that even personal sacrifices are sometimes required to win.
2. “John Wick, the “John Wick” Franchise
I debated whether or not to consider Keanu Reeves’ John Wick a vigilante, but considering that he takes on his mission of revenge free of charge I’d say he fits the bill and in that case he’s also one of the most capable badasses on this countdown. While his second film in 2017 only featured Wick as a vigilante type later on, in his first movie in 2014 he goes full on rogue after the son of a Russian gangster kills his dog (a memento of his dead wife) and steals his vintage car. Wick is possibly the most capable and calculated killer on this entire list. He remains focused and confident in every shot and every move he makes, taking out opponent after opponent with extreme precision and an undying commitment to his vengeance. Even in the second movie when he learns that he has been set up Wick is able to control his emotions and get the job done until he finally allows his anger to get the best of him leaving him without any allies at all. Wick was already above the law as a hitman before his first big screen appearance, but when circumstances force him out of retirement it’s fun and thrilling to see him use his skills for more personal gain. Even the police show an unwillingness to question Wick as he begins “working again”.
1. Travis Bickle, “Taxi Driver”
The ultimate movie vigilante, Travis Bickle is the figure most on this list are compared to and even inspired by as the lead character in the 1976 thriller “Taxi Driver”. Played to perfection by Robert De Niro in his prime Bickle is a lonely veteran who makes a living driving people around in a taxi and thus is exposed to all kinds of corrupt and questionable individuals. He decides to take matters into his own hands as his mental state deteriorates and seeks to become a savior to those in his city including targeting a pimp and a presidential candidate. Bickle is an every man who believes he can make a difference by taking the law into his own hands. His preparation for his vigilantism leads to the iconic “you talkin’ to me” scene and eventually sees him become a hero to his city despite his actions being outside of the law. If there was ever a film or character that romanticized the act of vigilantism it’s this classic and Travis Bickle who suffers from some of the most human frustrations any character on this list faces and is driven to do what he perceives as right while the world around him simply watches. No other vigilante on this list explores the psyche of such acts quite like Bickle and it’s very hard for the viewer not to sympathize with his willingness to take action despite the law which makes him not only one of the best, but the most iconic vigilante in film.