‘Vigilante’ at the Denver Film Festival

Director David Wexler has a secret weapon with “Vigilante: The Incredible True Story of Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels,” and he’s not afraid to use it.

Not only is the rise of Sliwa’s group perfect documentary fare, the founder himself, at 63, remains a force of nature. So Wexler wisely lets Sliwa tell his own amazing story.

Part performance art, part documentary, “Vigilante” is mesmerizing from start to finish. How could it be anything less with Sliwa spitting out insane anecdotes, quasi-rap rhymes, and tales from the rough and tumble Big Apple?

The film, which recently screened at the 40th Denver Film Festival, opens with Sliwa describing the most serious attempt on his life back in 1992. He still has the bullet scars to prove it, but it’s how he tells the story that draws you in. He’s like a car salesman you can’t help but like, even if you’re not getting the best deal possible.

He’s that charismatic. It’s one reason he’s enjoying a second career in New York radio.

The Guardian Angels came to life thanks to a fast food joint. That’s where Sliwa not only proved he couldn’t be pushed around by unsavory customers, but that fighting back might keep the peace. Back in 1979, New York City was under attack from a variety of gangs. It wasn’t safe to take the subway, let alone buy a Big Mac.

So Sliwa created the Guardian Angels, an unarmed force designed to take New York City streets back from the criminals.

Slowly but surely, they did just that. It wasn’t easy. The political power players, including popular Mayor Ed Koch, dubbed them vigilantes. The police weren’t sold on their brand of empowerment–that’s putting it mildly.

And the hordes of criminals didn’t go down without a fight.

Photo courtesy of Denver Film Society

“Vigilante” dutifully recreates the Big Apple of the ‘80s. This was before Mayor Rudy Giuliani helped reduce crime dramatically more than a decade later. The red beret-clad Angels fought crime as well as their own demons. Some had arrest records themselves, but they saw becoming an Angel as a way to make amends.

The film also retells the Bernie Goetz saga. The gangly New Yorker got so fed up fending off muggers, he took the fight to the criminals. Dubbed the “Subway Vigilante,” Goetz shot and seriously wounded four wannabe muggers. Those results drew Sliwa’s praise, a real problem for a group that proudly prowled the streets without weapons.

The Guardian Angels began as “The Magnificent 13” – 12 volunteers and Sliwa. Today, the group exists in more than 130 cities and 13 countries. The film honors that history but cuts a few corners on Sliwa’s behalf. We don’t hear how he made up some stories in the group’s early days to burnish their street cred. Nor do we learn much about his personal life, including his divorce from fellow Guardian Lisa Sliwa.

Those flaws can’t stop “Vigilante” from being a vigorously entertaining film with modern-day relevance. The notion of vigilantism is still with us, from movies like the upcoming “Death Wish” remake to debates over conceal carry permits.

Sliwa and company did what they thought was best. Now, they have a documentary to share their story with the world.