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Hipster Holy Grail: Simple Justice (1989)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

It's derivative, repetitive, slow to start, and alternately sappy and preposterous.  It's no surprise that Simple Justice is an obscure and forgotten '80s film.  Even so, I kinda dug some parts of it.  I probably won't be back for seconds, but I don't regret the first pass.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Plot Summary

We open with a day in the life of the DiLorenzo family, a gang of lovable, fun-loving Italian-Americans in New York City.  There's Vincenzo (Cesar Romero, in one of his final roles), the family patriarch and retiree who spends his days fixing up the family house.  Then there's Anna (Doris Roberts), Vincenzo's sharp-tongued wife with whom he exchanges many a playful barb while she cooks and keeps house.  Their kids have all passed away as far as I can tell, but they are survived by Frankie (Matthew Galle), their grandson, who lives in the same house along with his wife, Janet (Cady McClain).

The first fifteen minutes or so just show the four of them interacting one Sunday and going through their normal routine.  They banter, they joke, they have a good time.  Oh, and Janet is pregnant, which everybody's pretty psyched about.  So... yeah.  Fifteen minutes of this.

You better believe I'm going to complain about that later.

Eventually we get to see that Sunday end and the next day we watch Frankie and Janet go to their job as bank tellers.  They're content with their work and colleagues, so there's still no tension.  Fortunately, since their employer is a bank, they could potentially be embroiled in a robbery.  Which happens.... now.

Four interchangeable goons whose names I never picked up on storm the bank and hold it up.  The robbery starts out with the goons wearing masks and trying to be as non-violent as possible, but very quickly they start shooting innocent bystanders and they pull their disguises off for reasons I don't quite remember.  In the midst of the chaos, Janet is tragically gunned down.

She is rushed to the hospital where, despite her condition being stabilized, the news is mostly grim: she has lost the baby and is in a coma.  Frankie stays by her side as much as he can while the police, led by Detective Sullivan (John Spencer), begin their investigation into the robbery.  (We'll later learn that Frankie's father was a cop back when he was alive, and Sullivan was his former partner.  This detail admittedly gives a bit of dimension to the characters, but ultimately doesn't seem to matter a whole heck of a lot except to give Sullivan a little more personal interest in Frankie's well-being throughout the movie.)

Sullivan fairly quickly does two things.  First, he shows that he's a gruff, take-no-crap loose cannon who's willing to bend the rules and beat the shit out of suspects to get guilty people off the streets.  Second, he arrests the four goons and builds a halfway decent case against them.

The goons post bail and, in their off-time, threaten and browbeat all the witnesses who are going to give testimony against them in court.  Consequently, when we get to the trial, the District Attorney doesn't have much to hold against them and the judge lets all four goons go without a fight, much to the chagrin of everyone.

Quick side tangent: the laziness of this scene kinda pissed me off.  I mean, I got over it quickly because I know this is a vigilante movie and you have to let some guilty assholes go free or else the vigilantes won't have anybody to take vengeance on.  But c'mon... are you serious?  Four assholes rob a bank with assault rifles and murder half a dozen people in plain view of security cameras and dozens of witnesses, and somehow the authorities can't come up with a single shred of forensic or photographic evidence to nail their asses to the wall?  I can buy into the part where the witnesses are scared to come forward, but what about literally everything else?  It's a lucky thing I was looking for a revenge movie or else this whole sequence would just strike me as inexcusably dumb.

Frankie and his grandparents are distraught over the outcome of the court case, and it puts them at odds with Sullivan, who can only offer excuses when he tries to give comfort to them later.  Frankie goes off to mourn while Sullivan ponders on how much he hates his job.

Then we cut to one of the goons hanging out at a club.  As he's leaving, an unknown assailant sneaks up on him and knocks him out.  When the goon wakes up, he realizes he's hanging upside down by his ankles, which are bound in a rope swinging from an overpass.  He panics and tries to pull himself up, but he can't.  He calls out for help, and the mystery assailant just watches him creepily from the overpass above.  Moments later, a truck comes zooming down the street and plonks right into the goon like a punching bag.

Sullivan gets a report on the goon's death the next day and goes to investigate it, what with him being a homicide detective and all.  Naturally, there's some strong suspicion that Frankie was behind it, since he's got a clear motive.  Sullivan is reluctant to bother him, though - as far as he's concerned, whoever killed the goon did the world a favor.  Nevertheless, he snoops and does his damnedest to learn more.

That night, one of the surviving goons sneaks into the hospital where Janet is recovering and unhooks some of the equipment keeping her alive.  Frankie steps into the room just in time to alert the nurses, although he's unable to catch the goon.  With no immediate recourse available, Frankie goes on to mourn even more fiercely than before.

Cut to a park the next day.  Some kids are playing in a public fountain / sprinkler, and one of the goons is lurking nearby to sell some drugs or do something else equally nefarious.  He ducks inside a shed where the machinery for the fountain is kept and leans past a suspiciously dangerous-looking pump / swinging blade mechanism.  He manages to keep himself free and clear of all the moving parts as he digs out what appears to be his stash.  But then, seemingly out of nowhere, the mystery vigilante shows up again and shoves him down into the machine.  The goon is hacked up in no time, and soon his blood is pumping out of the fountain.

Then Simple Justice basically recycles the scenes we saw earlier - Sullivan goes to interrogate Frankie again ("You sure you're not killing people out of vengeance?"), Frankie keeps brooding, and the surviving goons are pissed off at Frankie, who they understandably assume is behind the killings.  Fortunately for them, they happen to see Anna DiLorenzo walking down the street, so they decide to beat her up to send a message back to Frankie.  They also pour gas on her, but before they can light a match, Frankie spots them and chases them away.

As you can probably guess, the next scene involves the mystery vigilante taking out another goon.  This time around, the vigilante keeps flashing lights and other distractions at the goon, who chases after him like a rat running headfirst into a trap.  The mystery vigilante lures the goon into a warehouse, where he then stabs the goon with a fire poker and pushes him out a window.

Sullivan continues to investigate Frankie, and Frankie continues to swear he's innocent.  And then there's a long, long time before we get to that fourth goon's demise.  Eventually, though, we build up to a stakeout situation.  Sullivan is spying on Frankie and tails him to the apartment building where Goon #4 lives.  While that's going on, we see the mystery vigilante knock on Goon #4's door, and when the goon opens, the vigilante swings a machete at him and cuts him pretty badly.  Goon #4 runs away and escapes to the roof, where he and the vigilante wrestle a bit.  Sullivan hears all the shouting and runs up to the roof to unmask the vigilante at long last and arrest him.  And that vigilante turns out to be... Vincenzo.  Naturally.  Because when you only have one other character to work with, you only have one choice.

Vincenzo and Goon #4 are both hospitalized for some injuries they sustained while fighting, and Janet wakes up from her coma right around the same time.  Then we go to another trial - this time, for Vincenzo's murders and attempted murder of Goon #4.  Turns out that Goon #4 is such a notorious asshole that everybody's pretty happy for Vincenzo, so the jury awards him with a modest prison sentence that can be served out at home under Anna's supervision.  The DiLorenzos leave the courthouse happily, laughing about the irony while Goon #4 fumes that justice was not served.

Oh, and real quick, Anna stabs Goon #4 in the neck with some poison and kills him while nobody's looking.  Somehow she gets away with this cleanly.  The End.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

The first half hour of this movie kinda sucks.  It feels like it lasts forever.

I mean, look, this is a movie with "Justice" in the title that doesn't even show the criminals getting away with their crimes until a half hour in.  That's just mind-boggling.  What did you think the audience was here for?  You don't have to build up much of a universe here - you can cut to the chase and get us there in half that time, easily.

But, no.  Simple Justice seems to think it's really onto something, like it's one-upping The Godfather and capturing the American Dream on film with a day in the life of the DiLorenzos. You get to see Anna and Vincenzo banter, you get to see Frankie discover that Janet is pregnant, you get to see them have breakfast together and - wait for it - dinner, too.  It just goes on and on and on with this slice-of-life, all-American/Italian-American family non-drama.  And it's not like it's poorly-acted or offensive or anything like that - the characters all seem likable enough.  It's just that we don't even see the goons until 15 minutes in and the film clocks in at 98 total.  That's an awfully high family life to murder ratio.

Even after the goons rob the bank and the movie hints that the second act turn is coming, it still can't seem to find the gusto to get moving.  You know how the first act is punctuated?  With a montage of Frankie wandering the city and brooding while an '80s power ballad with lyrics like, "Show me the way to move on" play over top.  In and of itself, that's not a crime, but the fact that the full song plays is. You don't have to show us a music video for us to believe that Frankie would be upset that the men who put his wife in a coma were let free by the justice system.  Just show Frankie staring ruefully and suspiciously at the distance for a bit, maybe cut to him looking at the window to a gun store or something, then do a hard cut to the next scene.

Ugh.  Just thinking about it makes me frustrated.  I try not to be an impatient viewer, but holy cow, why?

But enough of that.  Now I can move on to the positive.  And not the lukewarm, "Well, I guess I could technically watch it, so that's good," kind of positive that I often resort to in order to not be mean-spirited. There were parts of this movie I legitimately liked a lot, and they all happen as soon as the movie decides to go into Vigilante Mode.

This is where we get into the central premise, which I really, really loved.  Once I realized it was going to be a whodunit take on a revenge movie, I was fully on board.  It's not the most ingenious plot you'll ever hear, but it is the kind of innovation you can bring to a familiar plot to give it new life.

Plus, the first couple of revenge killings are pretty good.  The first one took me totally by surprise - there's so much more creativity to its setup and execution than there is in anything from the first act that it felt like a scene from a completely different movie.  The second goon's death doesn't quite live up in terms of creativity - it basically boils down to a well-timed shove - but it's still edited well and delivered in an interesting way.  Plus, the death immediately causes a kids' park fountain to suddenly spout blood, which is a pretty gross and kinda awesome visual.

The goons' immediate reaction to those first two killings also worked for me.  Instead of just sitting around and wondering what happened, they immediately suspect Frankie's after them and try to threaten him right back.  It escalates the stakes efficiently and believably.  Most power fantasy movies just build up to the inevitable kidnapping of the protagonist's wife or girlfriend.  I much prefer Simple Justice's method of showing the backlash to the vigilantism as a continuous, gradually-increasing thing that the DiLorenzo family has to deal with.  It's tense and interesting.

For awhile, anyway.  The third killing is an okay scene - there's not really a lot of innovation at play, but it still feels like a "brains over brawn" take on revenge when Vincenzo plays cat-and-mouse with the goon.  And that's all well and good... until he just goes and shoves a fireplace poker through the goon's chest.  From an action movie standpoint, it's not bad.  The goon goes flying out a window and dies horribly and that's a nice stunt.  But the problem is that it feels so routine and actiony.

The cool thing about the first two killings is that they rely on stealth, so not only do they give the movie a nifty, lowkey tone, but the implication is that the assailant could actually be anyone.  Once you introduce a poker through the chest, you're setting it up so that there's only two choices: either the vigilante is a strong, physically capable person (like Frankie), or the movie is about to give you a bunch of bullshit when you find out they're actually just whoever the hell else is sitting around.

The last killing - or attempt thereof, rather - is the stupidest one of all.  By this point, Vincenzo has apparently gotten bored of being calm and collected.  Instead of setting up careful traps to ensnare his prey, he decides to knock on the last goon's door and smack him with a knife.  So, the best idea the movie has - a mystery killer takes vengeance through a combination of traps and stealth - ends up being completely ignored for the sake of routine action movie bullshit, which is made all the worse when you find out that yes, the vigilante is in fact somebody who shouldn't be able to carry out the attacks.

Not that it was too much of a surprise.  This ends up being one of the other big problems.  Simple Justice is trying to build up a mystery around the vigilante, but it doesn't seed either enough suspects or enough doubt among the principal cast to be effective.  There's really only four characters when you get down to it: Frankie, Vincenzo, Anna, and Sullivan.  The movie was made in the '80s, so there's no chance a woman could possibly play anything besides a victim, which means Anna's off that list.  So, realistically, there's only three suspects.  And since the majority of the non-vigilante scenes of the movie are either Frankie or Sullivan professing their innocence while Vincenzo stands quietly in the background, they're pretty much telegraphing from the beginning what their twist is going to be.

I do really like the idea of a mystery, though.  To me, Simple Justice is one big missed opportunity.  The way you make this movie better is by expanding the DiLorenzo family and bringing in a few of their friends and in-laws.  Frankie could have an ex-con brother and a washed-up boxer friend who hangs out all the time and swears he'll always be there to back him up.  Or show us some scenes of Janet's former-Marine brother who has a huge collection of guns.  Give yourself a nice big pool of hotheads to work with that all have the motive and means to strike back, and now you've got a proper mystery.  Plus, as as an added bonus: you've got enough cast to work with that you can add to the body count.  How's that for raising the stakes?

I have enough good will toward this movie that I'll still call it "okay" overall.  There's a lot of good ideas and setups here and it does deliver on a few of them pretty well.  It's good enough that if they just cut about ten minutes out of that first act, I'd probably go right ahead and recommend this one without reservations.  As is, though, it's a pretty frustrating recommendation.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It's going to get the full obscurity bonus of 50 points, since it has well under the 100 IMDb rating cutoff point as of today (a paltry 24).  I can't quite give it a 15 point "you've probably never heard of them" bonus for the cast, since it has John Spencer, Doris Roberts, and Cesar Romero, but I think I'll give it 5 points for everybody else and 5 points for Romero.  Plus it gets an automatic 5 point bonus for having "Justice" in the title.

As far as hipster content goes, it actually doesn't score all that high.  There's nothing particularly ironic about it, and even though some of the fashion and music is outdated, nothing about it feels obsolete.  On the other hand, I will give it a sincere bonus of 5 points as a minor recommendation.

That adds up to a total of 70 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  Not too shabby.

Where You Can Watch

If you don't mind spending a bit of cash, you can buy a copy of this one on DVD.  Or you can rent it from Netflix like I did.