Friday, 15 June 2012

Death Wish II (1982) - A Quintessential Piece of Exploitative Revenge


Michael Winner’s ‘Death Wish’ (1974) is a gritty realistic thought provoking crime thriller that is very much a product of its time capturing perfectly the American public’s concerns with the alarming rise of street crime in the 1970s. However, many critics vilified it by damning its depiction of vigilantism as supporting it. I disagree as the late great Charles Bronson’s portrayal of Paul Kersey a liberal pacifist architect taking the law into his own hands after the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter by a gang of muggers embodied the frustrations of an imperfect justice system and the failings of society. The consequences of which change Kersey’s perception of what is wrong and what is right.


It is far more a damming commentary on violence than a glorification of it highlighted by the film’s Western themes with Paul Kersey’s descent into a crazy cowboy fantasy for justice induced by a business trip to Arizona after the attack on his family. He witnesses a tourist reconstruction of an Old West shoot out during a bank robbery and then on a firing range he reacquaints himself with the use of firearms in which he was well taught by his father a keen hunter and the reason for his previous pacification when he was killed in a hunting accident. Before Kersey leaves to go back to New York, he receives as a parting gift from his client a .32 Colt Police Positive revolver. This is the protagonist’s turning point as he begins to prowl the streets for the same criminal element that has caused his grief attracting muggers by using himself as bait after the police’s inability to capture the perpetrators that ruined his life.


As the movie progresses, never addressed specifically but used as an underlying character trait these ambiguities tell us that Paul Kersey has fallen into a delusional state of mind and by the story’s climax it becomes distinctively apparent as while badly injured he asks a mugger during a standoff to “draw. Kersey is now living in a psychotic fantasy world and is enjoying his vigilantism work with little morality in his notion of justice and we question his true intentions. This is further established when Det. Frank Ochoa (the late Vincent Gardenia) the police officer who has been pursuing the vigilante asks him to leave town and Paul Kersey replies “By sundown?”. Final emphasis upon this is seen in one of the film’s most famous moments in the closing shots. In the final scene, Kersey arrives at Chicago Union Station and notices a gang of thugs harassing a young woman. Looking on happily he then goes over to help her with the parcels she has dropped. As they walk away, the hoodlums look back making obscene gestures to him and with much glee, he points at them with his right hand while making the shape of a gun indicating that his vigilantism will continue and with that, the picture fades out leaving us with doubts in our minds as to his real motives.


One writer who agreed with the critics was the author of the original 1972 novel of the same name that the movie was adapted from, Brian Garfield. He hated Winner’s film version so much that it compelled him to write a follow-up to his own book entitled ‘Death Sentence’ published in 1975 and due to his intense dislike of the previous movie he would not sell the rights for an adaptation. The 2007 James Wan directed film starring Kevin Bacon while sighting the novel as source material it has very little in common with it with a completely different storyline although Garfield praised it for not advocating vigilantism and for making the same point as his own work. Personally, I think Michael Winner’s movie did this anyway. 


The same cannot be said about ‘Death Wish II’ though as it is a complete reinvention of Bronson’s character - a reboot of the ‘Death Wish’ concept if you will before the term was even coined. Going into development with their own take on a sequel, purveyors of exploitation low-budget production company Cannon Films bought the rights from the producer of the first film Dino De Laurentiis for a steal of just $200,000 to make a franchise as a vehicle for their newly contracted star Charles Bronson to reprise one of his most famous roles. Cannon executive Menahem Golan was originally attached to direct but Winner was brought back on Bronson’s insistence.


Completely redefined the emotionally subtle layered complexity of Paul Kersey and his abstract motives are replaced with a merciless angel of death in a balls out exploitation revenge thriller. While less intriguingly interesting in this respect this follow-up is far more satisfying in terms of its entertainment factor. To see Kersey have direct revenge by dispatching with callous coldness the scumbags who have wronged him by raping and murdering his comatose daughter and kind housemaid is an emotionally rewarding experience. One thing that really did bug me about the original was that Paul Kersey never set out after Jeff Goldblum and his gang of freaks who attacked his family and never even once crossed paths with them. Although that is a far more realistic take, in that he might never find them in such a big city with so little to go on and he was not present when the gang invaded his apartment so he would not even know if it was them if by chance he did bump into them.


Nevertheless, here Michael Winner gives us that satisfaction by making a far darker, disturbing and downright nastier movie than its predecessor shifting from a thoughtful drama and turning up the graphic violence to a considerable level to reach the heights of outright sleazy exploitation while keeping the serious tone. David Engelbach’s screenplay only serves the purpose to string together horrific events for Kersey’s plight that seek the reactions of shock, anger and revolt from us leading to his brutal retribution on the low-life scum who have wronged him. We cannot do anything else but root for him and punch the air when the filth is put out of their misery. 


Although this belated sequel was released eight years later, the story takes place six years after the original. In one of the later instalments in the series 1987’s ‘Death Wish 4: The Crackdown’ it is mentioned that Paul Kersey’s wife was murdered in 1975 obviously putting the setting of the original a year after its release and that his daughter was killed in 1981 which obviously puts the story here taking place a year prior to its release. It does not follow through with the set-up of the first film’s end; Kersey does not carry on with his vigilantism ways and he is not even residing in Chicago but is now living in Los Angeles. 


He met an old friend in the Windy City who owns a radio station in L.A. so he transferred his architect business to The City of Angels and is working on a big project for a new building for his client friend’s station KABC. Done with his vigilante days life is now treating him well. Business is great, he has a new girlfriend Geri Nichols a news reporter for the radio station (played by Charles Bronson’s real life wife the terribly wooden the late Jill Ireland) and his daughter Carol (Robin Sherwood) is gradually making progress coming out of her catatonia a state she was left in due to her attack. She has been left largely mute but according to her doctors, she has been uttering sentences for the past five weeks. Engelbach ignored this original’s end set-up so he could have Paul Kersey pick up the pieces after his tragic misfortune and start a fresh with a happy new life just for the writer’s sole purpose to have it shattered into pieces again. This gives our protagonist a device to drive the narrative forward with his motivation for revenge and to draw our empathies for his mission.


The opening title sequence is made up of establishing long shots and aerial shots of Los Angeles accompanied by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s for the most part terrible cheese ridden non-diegetic soundtrack with this opening main theme music a mix of synthesizers and long guitar wanking. Towards the end of the credits, we hear over the musical score radio news reports of the escalating crime rate statistics. This turns into the real world diegetic sound from a radio set in the living room of Kersey as the camera goes into the interior of his new house where he is waiting for Geri to pick him up to go see Carol at the hospital while his housekeeper Rosario ( the late Silvana Gallardo) prepares a meal for later. It turns out that it was Geri’s news report on KABC in a pre-recorded broadcast. While they are all having a day out together, Paul Kersey has his wallet stolen by a gang of five punks while waiting alone in a line for ice cream. Failing to get it back after cornering one of them in an ally Kersey goes back to Geri and Carol making the excuse that he left it at home. Getting his address from his I.D, the punks drive to his house in a van while the three of them are all still out and Rosario is still inside.


In its uncut version, what follows is one of the most notoriously grisly and harrowing home invasion gang rape sequences ever committed to celluloid. Clocking in at a drawn out 3-minutes in might not be as pro-longed as the brutally torturous scenes of rape in I Spit on Your Grave (1978) but it has no less of an extreme impact and is no less memorable with the sadistic humiliation of Rosario burnt into your mind. Gallardo is convincingly brilliant here in a brave performance and we really feel her suffering seeing her horrified facial expressions and hearing her crying and screaming of anguished pain.


Four of the scumbags take turns on her and one of them Cutter (a young Lawrence Fishburne) whips her with his belt. The leader of the gang Nirvana (Thomas F. Duffy) forces her to give him oral sex. It is an immensely unpleasant experience made even more disturbing in how the director shoots it. Michael Winner walked the line in how he depicted the sexual violence in the first movie with the emphasis on realism just showing enough of what was necessary to display the foulness of the crime while ever so slightly treading the waters of exploitation. Here he just dives right in at the deep end and films this sequence in an over the top rough nature as if it was a violent porno treating it as a set-piece event with the gang of abusers violating Rosario in various sexual positions with copious amounts of her full frontal nudity. It is a repellently vile gratuitously exploitative scene that deliberately goes all the way to antagonize our hostile reactions towards the soon to be victims of Paul Kersey’s vengeful wrath.


While Geri has gone off to do an interview Kersey and Carol return to the house. Paul Kersey is beaten and knocked unconscious. Rosario reaches for the phone for help but is killed when Nirvana hits her in the head with a crowbar. The gang takes Carol, this leads us to the second rape of the movie, and it is a strange and dare I say sensual one that juxtaposes the brutality of the previous sequence. In a night setting, the gang is hiding out in an abandoned warehouse and while a much better more effective part of Page’s score plays out - surreal out-worldly sounds - as Carol sits on the ground motionless punkcut (the late E. Lamont John) spreads her legs as she just stares at him. He slowly unbuttons her blouse undoes her bra and gently fondles her breasts. Taking down her panties, he lays her down and penetrates her with long slow strokes while caressing her breasts and sucking on her nipples. Creepily, much like the victims in 1975’s ‘Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ Carol is made to look like she might actually be enjoying it while the rest of the gang look on leeringly. It is as if Winner is trying to make an erotically sexy rape scene to take the viewer out of the fact that what they are watching is in fact sexual molestation. He tricks the audience into thinking momentarily that they are seeing a raunchy soft-core piece of pornography that they might find enjoyably arousing in the moment but the aftermath of which questions their own morality for looking at a rape in this voyeuristic perspective.


This weird sensualized rape is followed by the graphic demise of Carol. When Punkcut is done and gets off her she buttons back up her blouse and just as Jiver with his back turned to her (Stuart K. Robinson) is about to have a go she suddenly gets up and runs away. The punks chase after her until she jumps though a window and impales herself on the spiked iron fence below.


Back at Kersey’s house Geri turns up and unable to let herself in with her key she rings the doorbell bringing Paul Kersey back around to consciousness  and when he unbolts the door and lets her in they discover Rosario dead on the floor. When the police arrive, the detective leading the investigation Lt. Mankewicz (Ben Frank) asks Kersey about the similar incident that happened in New York before and Bronson delivers the throwaway line of how the attackers followed his wife and daughter home when they were shopping and that the police had good descriptions of them but it did no good. This is just not true and a huge continuity error as Carol’s catatonic state prevented her from looking at the mugshots and identifying the assailants with unclear descriptions of Goldblum and his cronies coming from the employees of the grocery store where this gang of punks followed the mother and daughter. The writer purposely retconned this to give Paul Kersey the motivation he needs in that he has the strong feeling the police will fuck it up again and he just cannot let that happen.


That is the set-up and now it is time for Kersey to dispense his bloody justice. After identifying Carol’s body and after her funeral, he keeps himself busy at work during the day and continues seeing Geri. At night, he goes about his revenge. He takes a Beretta Model 85 .380 ACP he has kept hidden in his bedroom wardrobe and drives downtown where he buys some second hand clothes to fit in with the street life there including a beanie hat. He rents a dingy little room as a base of operations and begins to prowl the streets for the scum that torn apart his life yet again. In the first act, the city’s dregs of society downtown invaded Paul Kersey’s happy life in the brightness of uptown L.A.’s daytime now he is on their turf at night seeking them out. These scenes are where Jimmy Page’s musical score works at its best with sharp electronic stings whenever Kersey appears on screen and there are some great visuals of his large shadows falling across the city; all this together with his new look gives him a cool dark enigmatic anti-hero presence very different to the previous film. The director really captures the sleaziness of this part Los Angeles’ rundown parts with porno theatres, mission centres and the general low-living creating an inner-city atmosphere similar to Martin Scorsese’s New York in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976).


The sequences of Paul Kersey serving his own brand of justice are more elaborate action set-pieces here compared to the rooted in realism of his shootings of the muggers in the original. This makes for satisfying entertainment as we see Bronson doing what he does best by blowing away the bad guys who have done him wrong. There is a laugh out loud moment during a shoot-out when the stupid Cutter (Fishburne) tries to protect his face from gunfire with his ghetto blaster only for Kersey to blow it apart - 


Kersey also has some great lines with this being the absolute highlight just before shooting the first punk he finds and kills Stomper (Kevyn Major Howard) when referring to the crucifix necklace he has on -


I do not think that David Engelbach did much research into street crime for preparation for the writing of his script though. When do you ever see multi-racial gangs? Their actions are questionable with all of them hanging around on street corners waiting to mug someone for their wallet but later in the movie they quickly move up to drug deals and weapons buying. They take a public bus on their way to the meeting point of that last business transaction. All this is way unrealistic but the actors all do such a solid job in overacting hamming it up to make for some very entertaining villains and we long for them to get their comeuppance.


The weakest aspect of the film though is the romance sub-plot between Paul Kersey and Geri (Ireland). Not only do these scenes interfere with the pacing of the movie they are terribly written with Geri never once referring to the very recent rape and murder of Kersey’s daughter and shows little sympathy towards his grief but is instead more concerned with complaining about not getting to see him enough and setting up dates with him. This just makes her out to be an unlikable character and ruins any emotional lending to the relationship that we are supposed to feel. Husband and wife couple Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland worked together a stonking sixteen times with Ireland not getting much work outside of her hubby’s films and it is easy to see why as she was just talentless and considering they were in love in real life there is very little chemistry here. These scenes are the most boring, and to make it worse Page’s hit and miss soundtrack really gets stinky here with the corny and dated romance cues. His musical score overall is extremely lacklustre compared to Herbie Hancock’s excellent jazz score of the first movie. 


One character I am very happy to see here is the return of is the sneezing world-weary Det. Frank Ochoa (Gardenia). This sub-plot fits in nicely with the proceedings and helps to connect this sequel to the events in the previous film. He is sent by his heads in New York to stop again Kersey’s vigilante ways to prevent him from being arrested as so to avoid him spilling the beans about letting him go the first time around. Ochoa is a great memorable character who is neither a bad cop nor a crusading one but he always does what he is told and is determined to get his job done bringing some much-needed comic relief with Vincent Gardenia’s whimsically humorous performance. Other comical elements can be seen with the ludicrous Lt. Mankewicz (Frank) the detective leading up the investigation here who is hilariously partial in putting off medical assistance to injured witnesses to Paul Kersey’s vigilantism be they his criminal victims or innocent citizens he had helped.


John Carpenter fans will spot Charles Cyphers (‘Assault on Precinct 13’, ‘Halloween’, ‘The Fog’ and ‘Escape from New York’) in a small cameo but plays a pivotal role in determining the movies’s conclusion. He plays hospital attendant Donald Kay when Kersey goes in disguised as a doctor to get the last remaining gang member Nirvana pretending to be his therapist which breaks out into a blistering fight resulting in a very memorable end to the film when Paul Kersey is caught by Donald with a classic exchange of dialogue between Bronson and Cyphers -

Paul Kersey:He raped and killed my daughter.”

Donald Kay:I read about that... I'll give you three minutes before I sound the alarm... You're wasting time.


As a faithful companion piece to the themes presented in 'Death Wish', this sequel is a disappointment but although far from perfect as a deep down and dirty trashy exploitation urban revenge thriller that oozes atmosphere it is one helluva of a success. Much like how the first movie was a product of its time this film is very much a product of its own time. It encapsulates everything that is loved by genre fans when it comes to extremely violent action flicks of the early 80s and does not shy away in painting a grimy picture in graphic detail of how society’s ills had escalated in that period. ‘Death Wish II’ is a quintessential piece of exploitative revenge and Winner frankly could not give a fuck about any harsh negative criticism given towards it…


*** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

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