“A vigilante is simply somebody who violates the law in order to punish a criminal for what they believe is right, for what they believe is justice.”
It’s easy to understand the appeal of big screen vigilante justice. We’ve all gotten tangled up in red tape, which is why it’s so gratifying to watch somebody tear through it. (And often spray some red elsewhere.) John Doe: Vigilante ends up being as ludicrous as any of the 17 Death Wish movies, but it also goes beyond putting the entire blame on “the system.” There are some interesting ideas at play here, including the notion that there’s a little Vigilante in all of us.
“John Doe has a story to tell. He’s a man on a mission. And if you are a law-abiding citizen, then let me tell you something: you have nothing to fear.”
We meet John Doe (Jamie Bamber) as he is standing trial for 33 counts of murder. Although he is technically a serial killer, John Doe has become a media sensation due to the fact that his victims are all repeat criminal offenders. On the eve of his verdict, he agrees to sit down for a revealing interview with skeptical journalist Ken Rutherford (Lachy Hulme).
Most of the film unfolds in flashbacks, as we see how John Doe built up his body count. We also follow Ken as he interviews the police personnel who were unable — or unwilling — to stop John Doe sooner, along with the media members who turned him into a star. John Doe bypasses the major networks and instead shares his videos with a lower tier web network, where he finds an enthusiastic champion in reporter Sam Foley (Gary Abrahams). As his exploits become more widely known, John Doe also inspires a group of copycat vigilantes — no, not this guy — known as the Speakers for the Dead, who are led by a potentially more extreme vigilante named Murray Wills (Sam Parsonson). Did the John Doe on trial for murder really kill all those people by himself? And should he be condemned or celebrated?
Australian filmmaker Kelly Dolen has set his film in his native country, but all of the major themes — a maddeningly imperfect legal system, a media horde that have an agenda and blow things out of proportion — are instantly recognizable to American audiences. Most of John Doe: Vigilante plays out in a faux-documentary/true crime style that’s familiar to anyone who watches Dateline. Although the documentary conceit occasionally jumbles the storytelling and timeline, Dolen does earn style points while staging a few ugly, gruesome killings. (The creepy masks his Following adopts are also pretty effective.) Since John Doe records some of his murders to send a message to the masses, there’s good tension created here utilizing POV shots and stationary cameras. It’s a smart use of a limited budget.
The script — written by Stephen M. Coates, but featuring a story credit for Dolen — features a few Network-style bombastic speeches and more provocative ideas about vigilante justice than your average lean, mean Liam Neeson thriller. There’s talk about the role that public apathy plays in society’s ills, and some exploration of how far one can (and should) go in protecting themselves and those they hold dear. Unfortunately, there’s also a truly absurd twist toward the end involving one of the major characters that is followed by a garbled conclusion that is more effective at setting up a sequel than it is wrapping up this movie.
Bamber (Battlestar Galactica) is a properly charismatic presence as the title character, who has to be both relatable and able to capture the imagination of the general public. The actor is equally good when flashbacks reveal John Doe’s personal anguish. Rutherford makes for a solid, surly foil for all of Bamber’s intelligent grandstanding. I’d say Parsonson is the other standout, since he makes Murray a more chilling presence than the guy who’s on trial for murder. The biggest missed opportunity is the Sam Foley character; more than once, it’s suggested John Doe and the reporter are working together to advance their agendas, but the issue is never really explored. Still, that’s more consideration than any of John Doe’s victims get.
While the script pays lip service to the gray area where vigilantes operate, the movie makes their work feel exceedingly black and white. There’s zero variety among the people we see John Doe kill; they’re all men, and they’re all presented as scumbags who clearly deserve to die. We’ve all seen vigilante justice in everything from the superhero exploits of Batman, Daredevil, and the Punisher to recent genre films like Law Abiding Citizen and The Equalizer. John Doe: Vigilante is a stylish, thought-provoking entry into that group; I just wish some of the other characters had more dimension than the intentionally faceless “hero.”