US critics take aim at Oz vigilante thriller

Kelly Dolen’s John Doe: Vigilante premiered in US cinemas last Friday and was met with mostly negative reviews which branded it as shrill, gory and pseudo-intellectual.

However one critic hailed the thriller as "riveting, unsettling, important, and poignant."

Main Street Films launched the film starring Battlestar Galactica’s Jamie Bamber as John Doe, a self-styled vigilante who is on trial for 33 murders, on 20 screens in California, Colorado and Arizona.

The screenplay by Stephen M. Coates follows a vigilante group called Speak for the Dead which supports Doe’s cause while he’s in prison, igniting a debate about justice versus vengeance. Lachy Hulme (Offspring, Power Games: The Packer-Murdoch Story, The Matrix Revolutions) plays a reporter who is trying to uncover the true story about Doe. 

Produced by Screen Corp’s James M. Vernon and Kristy Vernon, Keith Sweitzer and David Lightfoot, the film will debut in Australia on May 1 via Monster Pictures. It took just $US12,400 in the first three days on 18 screens, according to Movie City News.

“When TV's Dexter, the serial killer who targets other killers, left the airwaves last fall, he left plenty of room for copycats,” said the Los Angeles Times critic Inkoo Kang. “Into that void strides John Doe: Vigilante, a pseudo-intellectual exercise in bombast and glorified violence.

"Kelly Dolen's procedural masquerades as a solemn debate about the pros and cons of extreme vigilantism as an alternative to a dysfunctional legal system, but its characters and scenarios are so artificial that writer Stephen M. Coates' arguments are no more relevant to real life than anecdotes from an ethics textbook.

“The fatal flaw of John Doe is its focus on ideas, rather than people. The protagonist's victims are so cartoonishly evil they might as well be twirling their moustaches before being shot in the head. John Doe's sanctimonious speeches are equally weightless; only his self-righteous fury registers. In this case, anger speaks louder than words.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck was not much kinder, describing the film as “an exploitative action film that attempts to cloak its lurid elements in a pretentious air of seriousness that’s unlikely to fool anyone. And it seems disingenuous to pretend that the issue is a new one, considering that audiences were happily cheering Charles Bronson when he was blowing away muggers in Death Wish more than four decades ago.”

Scheck did find a couple of positives, observing, “Director Kelly Dolen stages the violent mayhem with skilful efficiency, and the film’s taut pacing doesn’t invite boredom. But John Doe: Vigilante ultimately fails in its purported mission to make us think about the issues it supposedly raises, despite the tie-in Speak for the Dead mobile game that presumably provides viewers the opportunity to put themselves in its titular character’s shoes.”

Movie Buzzers' Kris Anger hailed it as an important film, declaring, "It lets the viewer know its okay to want an eye for an eye; but, it’s not okay to take things into their own hands. Things become messier and violence increases for the victim’s “rights”. There is a tug and pull you feel while watching the film: good versus evil. Where does good end and evil begin?

"This movie had me sitting at the edge of my seat, ready to face its next twist. Mr. Bamber conveys John Doe’s heartache and malice (which becomes intertwined)."

Christy Lemire of Roger was unimpressed, labelling the film as shrill and sanctimonious and finding it “alternates between diatribes about the ineffectiveness of the justice system and gratuitous, gory clips of repeat offenders dying the brutal, bloody deaths they 'deserve.'

"This is supposed to be a thriller, by the way. It's more of a slog, not so much a whodunit as a whydunit—and by the end, it's: Who cares? The numbingly repetitive film from director Kelly Dolen and screenwriter Stephen M. Coates calls to mind the kind of rant you'd hear on AM talk radio—then reach for the dial to switch off as quickly as possible.”