David Wexler’s documentary on Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels explores one man’s rise from fry cook to hero.
Vigilante: The Incredible True Story of Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels opens with the titular subject recalling how he once narrowly escaped an assassination attempt from the back of a cab. The outspoken Sliwa didn’t fear the mob and openly discussed local gangster John Gotti’s alleged crimes during a radio interview. Shortly after, he received a belly full of bullets in the back of the taxi, which had been commandeered by hit men. You get the impression Sliwa wears his battle scars as a badge of honor. That said, when the criminal elite considers you a threat, surely that speaks volumes about one’s effectiveness?
During the 1970s, New York City was described as a “subterranean nightmare” and a “haven for crime and violence.” By the end of the decade, murder was up by an estimated 33%, while prostitution soared to an estimated 260%, due in no part to the ascension of organized crime syndicates and gangs across the city. Walter Hill’s cult classic The Warriors was one of several action movies to tap into the dangers of the Big Apple’s savage streets at the time, and that film just so happened to coincide with the emergence of a real-life group that found themselves thrust into thuggish terrains first hand — the Guardian Angels. This doc tells their inspiring tale.
Founded by NYC native Sliwa in 1979, the story of the Guardian Angels is a noble one, but their road to acceptance and appreciation encountered a few bumps along the way. Forming as a neighborhood watch organization, the group rode trains between the boroughs protecting citizens from robberies and muggings. Clad in red jackets and berets, their uniform was a comforting sight for members of the public who couldn’t defend themselves, but local law enforcement and the city’s politicians labeled them a vigilante group. The Guardian Angels exercised their right to make citizen’s arrests within the appropriate confines of the law, but they made the police look bad and caught the attention of Gotti’s Gambino crime family as a result of their exploits. For years they gained a lot of bad press, but the negative headlines didn’t deter their mission, and their numbers continued to grow.
Needless to say, the Guardian Angels captured public imagination and inspired a worldwide movement dedicated to combating rampant crime. They broke racial barriers by accepting members from all walks of life and backgrounds, both men and women. As long as they could hold their own and didn’t have any irredeemable criminal convictions on their record, all were welcome.
The film chronicles Sliwa’s journey from street-brawling McDonald’s fry cook to the mastermind behind an organization which now boasts chapters in cities across the world. Despite recounting grim stories like attempted murder, the tone throughout the documentary is upbeat and feel-good as the braggadocios subject is more than happy to share all his memories. Whether it’s remembering his shooting in the back of a cab or the time he took his first true love out for a hot dog, it’s all life experience Sliwa recalls with a enthusiasm and fondness. He’s a lively and engaging speaker who offers plenty of funny anecdotes to keep the mood optimistic throughout, and it’s plain to see why so many people have gravitated towards him throughout the years. For example, there’s a scene where he blissfully recalls how his McDonald’s mentor got inebriated one evening and came at him with a machete. When Sliwa stood his ground, he won his teacher’s respect and his warrior initiation was complete.
While Sliwa discusses his organization’s naysayers and the various highs and the lows he’s experienced since its inception, that he’s the film’s only subject makes for a very one-sided story. Director David Wexler corroborates Sliwa’s tales with old news and interview footage, which adds some broader insight to proceedings. But given the the influence his organization has had on everything from crime prevention to pop culture, the lack of alternative viewpoints stops this documentary from being anything more than an enjoyable cliff notes version of an interesting story. Overall, though, Vigilante is easy to digest and provides a perfect starting point for more study and investigation into a man who set out to make a difference and succeeded. For that reason alone, it’s worth your time.
Vigilante: The Incredible True Story of Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels is screening at Doc NYC on Nov 12 and Nov 15.